The "true meaning of Christmas" sounds as cliche as too-familiar Christmas carols, most Christmas card greetings and the seasonal barrage of television Christmas specials.

But it's like stumbling across farm animals talking at midnight on Christmas night. For all the times you've heard about it, when you really find it, you tingle with wonder.That elusive meaning hovered for a moment over Nector Restaurant Christmas Day. The Nector Restaurant, 979 S. State, was the hub of a great force of charity whose spokes fanned out across the Salt Lake Valley for five hours Tuesday.

Nearly 400 volunteers showed up at the restaurant to deliver Christmas dinners - and often toys and clothing - to the homebound. Christmas Homebound Project was the 1987 brainchild of Ross Broadbent and Karen Clark. By 1990, it swelled to include $10,000 worth of food, handmade Christmas cards from 3,000 Salt Lake schoolchildren and a "Free Store" at the Bryman School where volunteers could pick up clothing and toys to go along with the food for those who needed it.

It had also become the crown of Christmas for Utahns who wanted a holiday joy that ran deeper than gifts and festivities.

"We like to help people out around the holidays," said Jim Wilson. Jim, his wife, Lynn, and their two daughters had just finished taking a meal to an elderly man who would not have had a Christmas dinner. They returned to the restaurant to pick up another address and another meal.

"I like this because it is totally volunteer and non-profit," Lynn Wilson said.

Last year, the project provided Christmas dinners to 1,700 homebound and a sitdown meal in the Nector restaurant to another 700 homeless, said Ted Knodell, project director.

Tuesday's volunteers attend brief orientations where they are encouraged to do more than drop off a meal.

"A turkey dinner is simply a gift that paves the way for the greater gift: your presence, your greeting, your time," the project's mission statement said. "We want the people to connect. Get inside the door and spend a few minutes," Knodell said.

Dwight Ramus was on his way to connect with a woman, her three children and her seven grandchildren. Ramus showed up at the restaurant to deliver food after a friend recommended the project.

"I was bellyaching about not having a conventional family to spend Christmas with," he said. "She told me this would be wonderful and fulfilling. So far, she's right."

Ramus carried a box of 15 turkey dinners fresh from the microwave and a fistful of Christmas cards made by schoolchildren.

Ramus and other volunteers had been encouraged in orientation to share details from their own lives when they visit the homebound.

"The meal is a way in the door. The real gift is you," said Bre Lowe, one of the project's coordinators. "Talk about yourself. Share yourself."

Ramus did that. When he met the woman, her children, grandchildren and zoo of pets, he stayed to visit.

The woman, Dolly, and Ramus talked about adolescent girls. They each had one. And sons in their 20s. They each had one of those, too. And poverty. Ramus grew up with it.

"I get food stamps, but $140 doesn't go far," Dolly said. "All you can get is Top Ramen. I've got all four flavors, but we get tired of it."

Skin grafts on the woman's hands and feet blanketed the ravages of third-degree burns. "My water heater blew up three years ago. When I tried to smother the fire, the gas line exploded."

As Ramus and Dolly visited, the giving blended with the receiving, as directors of Christmas Homebound intended it to.

"It's good for me every once in a while to remember that people are still that hard off," Ramus said as he drove away.