Mary Knotts heard the sirens and peered from her living room window. She saw a group of people in long, dark coats walking up her driveway, their faces hidden under umbrellas in a misty rain. Who were these strangers at her doorstep a few days before Christmas bearing a white envelope?

Okay, so it wasn't Ed McMahon thrusting a $1 million check from Publishers Clearing House under her nose when she opened the door in a long flannel shirt and sleepers. But Knotts and her family still jumped and screamed as Leesburg Mayor James E. Clem (looking a bit like McMahon, some onlookers said) and his entourage gave them $50 for their elaborate holiday decorations.

"You've won! You've won!" shouted Vice Mayor B.J. Webb, as the Knottses raced out their front door. The Knottses took one of eight prizes awarded Monday night in the Leesburg Holiday Decoration Contest, sponsored by Middleburg Bank--the dough backers of the event--and the Town of Leesburg--the presenters who handled the glory side of things.

Mary Knotts, who provides child care out of her home, shrieked in mock surprise--as with the sweepstakes crowd, the prize winners are warned ahead of time to be home to collect.

"I can't believe it," she said, like any grateful contestant.

Mary and her husband, Virgil, went to work the day after Thanksgiving, stringing red, white, green and blue lights on a half-dozen Christmas scenes in their quarter-acre yard in the 400 block of Cherry Lane. "My husband always says, 'Oh, it takes just an hour or so,' " she said, "but it's more like many hours over the whole weekend."

There's the manger scene, the candy cane display on the white picket fence, the knee-high wooden reindeer that seem to jump in the air, wearing red bows around their necks, and white lights everywhere else. Three wire angels hold caroling books. Yellow stars stand in the grass "illuminating" a three-foot tall Bible verse on plywood.

And don't forget this year's addition: a gazebo with a Christmas tree in it.

The victory had sentimental appeal for the Knottses, who used to buy boxes of chocolate for neighbors who delighted them with their decorations. They gradually gave up the tradition as their two sons--now 11 and 23--grew up.

"We'd pick out our own categories," Mary Knotts said. "There was the prettiest one. And then the one that looked like it had the most lights. And then we'd sometimes just give them something for even putting a few out and trying."

Trying is something the Knottses know about. Their prize was for "Best Effort."

"It's just a fun, small-town feeling having a decorating contest," said Bonnie Westfall, who organizes the contest. "And it makes the town look nice."

Leesburg's Best and Brightest

The winners:

Best Individual Business: The Alternative Staff, 27 N. King St.

Honorable Mention: Loudoun Street Cafe, 7-A W. Loudoun St.

Best Nonprofit: Loudoun Ballet Company (in the Leesburg Vintner's window), 29 S. King St.

Honorable Mention: Salvation Army, 64-C Plaza St.

Best Traditional: The Werner residence, 406 S. King St.

Honorable Mention: The Grzybowski residence, 606 North St.

Most Creative: The Shipley residence, 501 Lawford Dr. SW.

Honorable Mention: The Karkanen residence, 302 Lafayette Pl. SW.

Best Shopping Center: Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets mall on Route 15 Bypass.

Honorable Mention: Virginia Village on Catoctin Circle.

Best Effort: The Knotts residence, 405 Cherry Lane NE.

Honorable Mention: The West residence, 613 Rockbridge Dr. SE.

Best Door: The Brown-Carrera residence, 301 W. Market St.

Honorable Mention: The Gibson residence, 420 Lawford Dr. SW.

Best Street/Neighborhood: 800 block of Anne Street SW.

Honorable Mention: Chesterfield Place SW.

CAPTION: There is cheering on Cherry Lane on Monday night when Leesburg Mayor James E. Clem, above left, congratulates Virgil and Mary Knotts for winning a prize in the town's decorating contest. Eight prizes were awarded. At left, Bonnie Westfall, who organizes the contest, rides on a bus with town officials to award the prizes.

CAPTION: Marisa Carrera and Bob Brown stand by their "Best Door"--a winner in Leesburg's Holiday Decoration Contest.