Not many people would decorate for the holidays using leopard print.
But a newly refurbished white loveseat with deep red fabric on the back and leopard print on the seat inspired Tamara Beck to make a mostly red-and-white living room scene in her store window on Main Street in Ellicott City.
"Everything else kind of came from that," said Beck, who opened Tamara's, a store of salvaged home-design items, in July.
Merchants on Main Street know that their storefront windows are one of their best marketing tools, but this year the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation is making things a little more interesting by sponsoring a window-decorating contest in the historic district.
Judges will choose a winner among more than a dozen entrants Sunday, and the public can vote for a "people's choice" winner through Dec. 10. Winners will get free advertising in two area guides.
"We're just trying to make the Christmas season a little more exciting for people," said Edward Lilley, president of the foundation. "It's an additional thing that might attract people to town."
The foundation received a $5,000 donation from Sears Grand, which opened a store last month on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. The money allowed the group to print a brochure of holiday activities for the first time and sponsor the window contest.
The contest coincides with a Hospitality Weekend this weekend, during which merchants and historic sites will offer refreshments and entertainment.
The Ellicott City Business Association plans to kick off the weekend and the holiday shopping season tonight with its annual Midnight Madness. Stores will remain open until midnight, as will the B&O; Railroad Museum: Ellicott City Station and the Ellicott City Firehouse Museum.
Santa will arrive by firetruck at 7:30 p.m. Several high school madrigal choirs and other musicians will perform throughout the historic district. A free shuttle will help people navigate the often-crowded event.
Midnight Madness started with fewer than a dozen merchants 29 years ago, said Barry Gibson, one of the event's organizers. "They wanted to kick off the Christmas season, and it kept on snowballing."
The expected foot traffic was reason enough for most merchants to dress up their windows, but some are enjoying the friendly competition.
"We've been checking [other stores] out, they've been checking us out," Beck said.
In addition to the loveseat, Beck used a white carved-wood fireplace mantel, stockings embroidered with gold thread and a Christmas tree decorated with red roses.
"I wanted to do a kind of realistic setting," Beck said. "I wanted it to look like someone could walk in, sit by the fire and start opening presents."
Holly Hoenes, owner of the Yuppy Puppy pet boutique, says her window could be a contender. "How cute is my window with the dogs?" she said, pointing to realistic mannequin puppies sporting sweaters, collars and, on one, a Ravens jersey under twinkling snowflake-shaped lights.
"Plus, I have a Hanukkah window," she said, indicating a section with blue doggy items and Hanukkah-themed tinsel. "I put a lot of effort into it, and it was a lot of fun."
The window contest was an inspiration to the staff at Fisher's Bakery to take down their regular display and start from scratch.
Packages wrapped in shades of rose and gold are the setting for eight display cakes. One called "ikebana" is covered in smooth white fondant with black ribbon and smooth black stones (which would be made of candy on a real cake).
"I see this window as a chance to break out of the box," said Tracey M. Buchanan, the bakery's senior decorator.
Art & Artisan owner Karen Besson missed the deadline for the contest, but she decorated her window nonetheless.
"I'm going for exotic and lots of sparkle," Besson said, showing off a garland made of feathers and crystals, glittery plastic stars and a shiny red ball covered in reflective discs and beads.
Besson said store windows are a big part of preparing for the holiday season.
"It just makes the town overall a more festive atmosphere," she said. "You get the whole range, from very traditional up to the very funky and modern, and that's a blast."
Information on holiday events in Ellicott City: See the December calendar at www. visithowardcounty.com, or 410-313-1900.