The threat of winter weather may have contributed to the crowd coming early.
Usually open until 3 p.m., the dinner wrapped up by 2 p.m. as the incoming line faded.
"I heard the weather forecast and I prayed," Thornton said. "I asked for clear weather until 3 o'clock."
Thornton said he generally prays on the way to work at 4 a.m. because with more people asleep, he is more likely to get a clear line to God. Christmas Day had its need for prayer. In addition to the annual challenge, the person scheduled to unlock the church had locked the keys in the building.
Preparations started an hour and a half late, but it only delayed opening by 15 minutes.
A lower turnout in the hall was compensated by higher carry-outs. Thornton
said the weather forecast scared a number of seniors who would have attended into staying home. After the 250 carry-out containers disappeared, it was harder to tally the final count, which settled at 320. Including the carry-outs, more than 1,300 meals were served, topping last year's count of 1,275, the goal Thornton hoped to beat.
Another charity fed the Barry County jail staff and inmates this year.
Looking for another outreach, Thornton fed the staff and patients at Cox Monett Hospital. Meals were also taken to emergency service workers, guards on duty at local plants and others working on the holiday.
Thornton's efforts to compensate for the high price of beef generated a large quantity of food from home cooks. The turkey, chicken, ham, meat loaf and fish never ran out. Over 150 pounds of fish, caught by numerous fishermen throughout the year and packed in private freezers, was one of many specialties on the serving table.
This year's crowd seemed more local than some past dinners. Nonetheless, guests from Miller and Cassville, people who see Thornton in church and at bingo games, accepted his invitation to join the gathering.
"This has been the smoothest dinner ever," said Greg Davis, Thornton's long-time chief cook. "There's more meat than we've ever had. The volunteers came in consistently. No one had to work too hard. We've had more volunteers and several first timers. The whole community is involved. That's what I love about it."
One of the first-time volunteers was Frances Simpson, of Pierce City. She heard about the dinner from friends at the Pierce City Senior Center. Rather than just come for the meal, she joined the serving line.
"It's been a lot of fun" Simpson said.
Two regular volunteers were Karen Kenyon and Effie Collins. Kenyon had been encouraged by Thornton years ago when she was going through a difficult time in her personal life, and she has viewed volunteering at the dinner as her way of giving back. She and Collins both worked at Walmart and helped organize others at the store to volunteer. A van and a half of supplies were donated by Walmart for this year's dinner.
Collins said she hadn't seen many of the volunteers since last year. The occasion offered a kind of family reunion and a chance to catch up on each other's news.
Anna Thornton, Linn's wife, made one run to the grocery store to restock on stuffing, corn, green beans and butter. She was pleased to turn over road duties to a half-dozen volunteers making deliveries.
Leading up to the dinner, Thornton provided toys for 357 families who came to "Santa's workshop" to pick out gifts for children who otherwise would not have been able to celebrate the holiday. He took four big bags of toys to the dinner to have gifts for the children attending. He ended the day and half of a brown grocery bag left over.
It was unusual for the dinner to have leftover food. Thornton planned to take some of the supply to particularly needy families. The rest was donated to the Community Kitchen, which also serves meals at the church.
"Everything went like clockwork," Thornton said. "I sat in the back and handed out toys. People came up and visited with me. It was great to see people stay and visit. It was just like a big family. There were Hydro workers who haven't gotten unemployment yet who said if it hadn't been for the dinner, they wouldn't have had a Christmas. It makes you feel good when you know you're helping people like that."
Thornton ended his day feeding the cats he cares for at Architectural Systems, where he works. Watching the cats dig into the morsels with delight, he told them, "Well, you got to celebrate Christmas, too."
Thornton planned to be back at work at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 26. He wasn't sure if he would manage his day-after-Christmas restocking of supplies, but he had begun preparations for next year's dinner.
"I've got the greatest cooks," Thornton said. "My head cooks have agreed to come back. I've booked the hall for next year.
"We were able to do all this, putting on one of the biggest spreads in the country, and I didn't have to leave Monett to get any of it," Thornton added. "I'm well pleased."