It's 9 a.m. Christmas Eve and the basement of the American Legion Hall, smack in the middle of Damascus in Montgomery County, has been transformed into a unexpected little grocery store, filled with the aroma of fresh citrus and pine.

Hundreds of plastic-wrapped chickens from Cedar Grove Grocery are piled on a table on the left. Boxes upon boxes of oranges, grapefruit and apples from the Damascus High School Future Farmers of America and Butler's Orchard sit on the table on the right. Loaves of white bread from Safeway and cartons of macaroni, tomato soup, chicken broth, beans, peas, cookies and candy -- all donated by churches, businesses and civic groups -- take up nearly every inch of floor space. Ten fir trees, last-minute arrivals from a well-wisher, are piled outside the door.

Welcome to the Lions' Club Christmas Supermarket, of sorts. No money is accepted for these goods -- just give with good will and take with a bit of Christmas spirit, say the three dozen club members who arrived within minutes to help distribute the offerings. Within an hour, these friends make short work of filling plastic bags and then their cars and vans with deliveries. Save for a few rotten oranges, the hall is clear.

The Lions Club project in Montgomery County paralleled the efforts of hundreds of civic groups around the region yesterday, many of whom said the number of those in need had increased from last year.

"Last year, we had 50 families to deliver to," said Norwood Keel, impromptu grocer and coordinator of the annual Lions Club effort, which contributes to a food, clothing and toy drive undertaken by the Damascus Help Club and the Damascus Ecumenical Laymen's Association. "This year we have 70 families. But the whole effort has had to increase in the area. The distribution went to 130 families last year. This year, we'll be sending out packages to 175 families."

To drop in on the Lions Club is to glean a bit of Christmas unspoiled, meet the kind of people who give of themselves for their neighbors and smile quizzically at a visitor who offers praise. "But I like doing this," said one young boy. "Isn't this what it's all about?"

That's exactly what Tom Tonks and his two teen-age sons were thinking yesterday as they prepared to make deliveries to six families in Damascus, a town just eight miles south of the Frederick County line. Tonks, a 44-year-old insurance agent, said he joined the Lions Club eight months ago because he wanted to be part of an organization that served its community. His desire was fulfilled yesterday as he stuffed his car full of Christmas cheer, ready to be delivered.

"I did something like this when I was a boy in high school," Tonks said. "It had an emotional impact on me and I thought this would be a good thing for the boys now . . . . My neighbor told me all the good things this group did and I decided to do something to help my community."

Emerson Slacum, former principal of Damascus High School, was one of more than a dozen retirees lending a hand to do what he described as "the kind of thing we do all through the year."

"But this is a tradition that gives all the Christmas trimmings to those who need it," he said.

A younger Tommy Tonks, the 18-year-old son of the insurance agent, sidled up to Slacum with a grin. "It's going to be fun," Tonks said. "He's going to do all the talking. I'm going to be doing all the carrying."