Mardi Gras (search) costumes were sparse but so were the crowds Tuesday as the annual extravaganza of parades and parties arrived earlier than usual because of a quirk in the calendar.

"This is the smallest I've seen it in at least the last 10 years," Police Chief Eddie Compass said after posing for a picture with a group of women wearing grass skirts and coconut shells. "I think it's the early date and the rain."

The annual pre-Lent celebration, a combination of family party and Bacchanalian blowout, still resembled the same jubilant citywide spectacle it has been for over a century — it was just a bit easier to get around.

Along St. Charles Avenue, the normally jam-packed street had stretches of empty spaces when the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club (search), the first of 11 parades Tuesday, made its way past.

The problem was partly that Fat Tuesday (search) is the earliest this year it's been in 15 years — so far from spring break that it kept much of the college crowd away.

And while Tuesday was cloudy but mild, with the temperature around 70, rain had fallen Monday and during the night, turning some spots muddy.

"It's definitely off," said Fallon Daunhauer, a bartender at Johnny White's in the French Quarter for 21 years. "I think both things hurt. It's not the best weather and it's so early. Too close to Christmas, not close enough to spring break to get the college kids in."

On Bourbon Street, where college students and others trade beads for glimpses of flesh, normally crowded balconies held fewer people.

In the French Quarter, merchants marked Mardi Gras T-shirts down to five for $20 or less. Vendors hawking beads, hats, feather boas and other trinkets along the parade route also said business was poor.

"We're not making any money," said Vinney Lucus of Cranston, R.I., whose uncle has been selling along the parade routes for 10 years. "But you aren't so mobbed, so there's less stolen."

Mardi Gras, which capped 11 days and more than 70 parades, kicked off with dozens of marching groups parading through the streets at dawn. Mayor Ray Nagin toasted the faux monarchs of each parade and turned rule of the city over to Rex, the king of Carnival.

"It's been very peaceful," Compass said. "We haven't really had any trouble on the parade routes or in the Quarter. People are just having fun."

Last February, a 20-year-old New Orleans woman was shot and killed as she watched a parade on St. Charles Avenue. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty against the three teenage boys and 20-year-old man indicted in the killing.

Police close Mardi Gras ever year with a sweep down Bourbon Street, followed by street sweepers and garbage trucks as Carnival officially ends and Lent, in this heavily Catholic city, begins.