Student volunteers at the University of Illinois answered calls from people looking for some holiday cheer at the 52nd annual Dial-A-Carol in 2013. (University Housing, University of Illinois)

For one week in December, between finals and end-of-semester goodbyes, students in one college dorm take turns singing holiday tunes to strangers.

Around-the-clock, they man the phones, taking requests for songs from people all over the world seeking a little bit of holiday cheer.

So, if in the middle of the night, you have a hankering for a live, likely out-of-tune, rendition of Jingle Bells, someone is out there ready to sing it for you.

And, as one would expect, it’s absolutely infectious. Calling midday Friday, after a short wait time, this reporter requested “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” from the friendly guy who answered. He pulled up the lyrics and sang, completely off-key, but with so much heart, the Brenda Lee hit.

Dare you to try it and not smile.

This singer happened to be Dan Quock, the resident director of the Snyder Hall, the University of Illinois residence that has hosted the Dial-a-Carol program for more than 55 years.

“We’re very amateur, I think that’s one of the better parts of it,” he said.

The program started in 1960 when Snyder’s office secretary, a woman named Betty Gordon, convinced the residents in the then-all-male dorm to sing and play carols for random callers around the holidays.

Initially, they’d sing to only every few callers, playing vinyl records for the others. But over the years, the students decided it was more fun and festive to sing them all, said Kirsten Ruby, the university’s associate director of housing for communications.

“Most students of the building participate, regardless of musical ability, religion, or the fact that it’s finals week,”  she said.


(Andrew Gleason/University of Illinois)

For many of them it’s a “great stress reliever,” Quock said.

“I just got done with a final, I’m just going to hang out here and sing some carols and get my mind off of it,” he said, after he finished his song, and over the sounds of students singing in the background.

Their favorite callers are teachers from elementary or middle school classrooms. They feel fairly confident they have most every holiday song in their repertoire, but last year a radio station in Ireland called and stumped them when it asked for an Irish Christmas favorite, “Fairytale of New York.” They’ve since added the folksy ballad to their songbook.

They opened the phone lines at midnight Thursday, and within the first 14 hours they had already hit 1,000 calls and all 50 states. They also received calls from Australia, Canada, China, South Korea, Sweden and Taiwan.

A few years ago, they created a “Mariah Meter” to measure how many times callers requested Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” – the pop holiday anthem of the past two decades. Last year it was requested 339 times.

On the Dial-a-Carol Facebook page, one fan asked what song they really wanted to sing. A student manning the social media accounted responded, “While we would love to see the Mariah Meter break and Jingle Bells typically is the most request song each year… I (as the replying member of the Dial-a-Carol team) would love to be able to sing “What’s This?” from the Nightmare Before Christmas. My colleague, who is next to me right now as I am replying, is begging to sing Mistletoe by Justin Bieber.”

The students will be singing until 11:59 p.m., Dec. 16.  So pick out your favorite holiday song, give them a call at (217) 332-1882, and prepare to be serenaded.

And to smile.