Dial-a-carol hits a merry note

McClatchy Newspapers


What fun it is to laugh and sing if you’re a University of Illinois student caroler this holiday season.

The students are taking thousands of holiday song requests by phone 24 hours a day during finals week, singing “Jingle Bells,” “All I Want for Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman” from a makeshift phone bank in their festive dorm lounge.

The “Dial-a-Carol” phone lines opened at 12:01 a.m. Dec. 13 — with the first call coming in a minute later — and stayed open until 11:59 p.m. Dec. 19.

It’s rare for more than five minutes to pass between calls, with students getting most giddy when it’s time to sing “Feliz Navidad.”

About 70 volunteers who live in Snyder Hall take hourslong shifts to continue a 52-year-old tradition that brought in 4,000 calls last year. At times, students are singing into three phones simultaneously, a chorus of carols filling the dorm lobby.

Nearly 500 calls came in on the first day alone. A woman in Japan asked for “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” while Mark, from Illinois, asked for “Jingle Bells.” “We’re pros at that song,” said junior Heather Sears, prompting six carolers to run to the phone to sing it.

As soon as they finished, the phone rang again, this time a request for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from a middle school music class in Marietta, Ga.

The music teacher said she heard about Dial-a-Carol through Facebook. “It’s been on my calendar for several weeks. The students picked three carols and we voted and Rudolph won,” said teacher Jennifer Stepp. “They did great.”

Anyone from anywhere can request a carol or holiday song, and, in most cases, it’s in the students’ binder of 41 songs. If they don’t know the song, they look it up on YouTube and play a recording.

Callers also can request that the volunteers call someone else to deliver a song.

During Thursday afternoon’s shift, callers included a radio host in Ireland, toddlers at a day care center, and U. of I. classmates calling from a cafeteria during lunch. The carolers were giggly, fueled by coffee and Mountain Dew as they avoided studying for finals.

Keith Cunningham, a radio host in Dublin, stumped the students with a request for “Fairytale of New York,” a popular Christmas ballad in Ireland.

“You have definitely given us a challenge,” Daniel Quock, Snyder Hall’s resident director, told the caller. He found the song and lyrics online and sang along as it played. The radio host sang too.

Legend has it that the “Dial-a-Carol” tradition was started by a Snyder Hall secretary, Betty Gordon, who thought it would be fun to play carols over the phone to friends.

The operation hasn’t changed much since then. The phone number is still the same, and it’s still free. While students used to only be able to deliver calls locally, now they can call anywhere through a free online calling service.

When he was governor, James Thompson was among the callers one year. He said this week that he thinks he requested “Silent Night.”

The most popular song last year was “Jingle Bells,” with about 550 requests, and it’s at the top again so far this year.

Senior Kasia Stelmach, 22, sang for at least five hours Thursday, her fourth year participating in the program. “It’s a nice study break,” she said. “You can make a fool out of yourself and be totally OK with it.”

A few students joined in the singing. And the rest just laughed.

Next year, call Dial-a- Carol at 217-332-1882.

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