Clef Notes

“Dial-A-Carol” for a Dose of Holiday Cheer


One of the University of Illinois’ most beloved holiday traditions returns next week. From 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, December 7 to 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, December 13, students at Snyder Hall will be standing by to inject the phone lines with some festive cheer during the annual Dial-A-Carol event, sponsored by University Housing and Student Affairs. All you have to do is call (217) 332-1882, and a caroler will sing you a holiday song of your choice for free. Volunteers will be manning the phones 24 hours a day, so you can call whenever the mood strikes.

We asked the organizers of Dial-A-Carol for some more information to get a behind-the-scenes look at this fun annual tradition:

Can you tell us a little about the history of Dial-A-Carol? 

It is said that one winter day in 1960, Betty Gordon was working as a front desk clerk in Snyder Hall and was on the phone with one of her friends. Her friend on the phone heard the music that was playing from her radio and mentioned it to her. This inspired Mrs. Gordon to spread holiday fun within the residence hall. So, Dial-A-Carol was born. Though at first it would just be music played from a radio, it later evolved into actual karaoke. 

How many callers do you expect this year? 

Last year we ended up getting 8,328 calls. We hope to break this number by reaching 10,000!

How many volunteers will work the phones? Where do you recruit volunteers from? Do most volunteers take part year after year? 

Between 11 and 20 volunteers at a time work the phones every hour; however, several volunteers bring groups of friends to help out. We usually recruit volunteers from digital signage, word of mouth, and school-wide communication. We also do not have any restrictions on who can join in as staff, students, and alumni alike have sung carols! We also have many volunteers who return every year, and we have had alumni come back to sing.

Can callers request any carol? 

Callers can request any carol and any song that may want! We have a songbook that has commonly requested songs. This year’s songbook has 106 songs. The book has lyrics for the caroler to read, in case they don’t know the song, which happens a lot! For any song not in the songbook, we try our best to look it up and sing along to a YouTube background. 

Do singers have lyrics or sheet music available to them? 

Yes, singers do have lyrics available to them. In the songbook, there will be a link to a YouTube video that volunteers can use to sing along to. To volunteer, you don’t need to know the lyrics or know exactly how a song goes. In the wise words of Betty Gordon, “. . . After they sang, I told them the same thing I always do: what you lack in talent, you certainly make up in volume.”

How many carols do volunteers typically sing on a given shift? How long are their shifts? 

Typically, volunteers may sing up to 50 songs or more every shift. Their shifts usually last up to an hour.

Are there standout carols that come up more than others? 

Standout carolers from past years: Arthur Hall, Angel Sierra, Matthew Felbein, Galeela Senbetta, and Oluwaseun “Seun” Adediran

Top-requested songs:  Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and All I Want for Christmas Is You  

Honorable mentions: Frosty the Snowman, Deck the Hall, Jingle Bell Rock, Feliz Navidad, Little Drummer Boy, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, and Last Christmas

Angel’s favorite song to sing: Last Christmas

What’s the most far-flung place you’ve received a call from? 

We have received calls from places all over the world, but one example of a call that caught us off guard was from Thailand. They called us and requested a holiday-adjacent song. This caught us off guard as we didn’t expect a call from there due to both the time difference and the fact that the information got to them via word of mouth.

Have you received any calls from celebrities or other noteworthy people? 

Last year we received a call from Sam Ryder, who came in second at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2022. We received his call after we had finished caroling and had put everything away, but we still took it the following day at 6:30 a.m. Once we started singing, we realized that he was singing back to us. We have also received calls from YouTuber “Really Very Crunchy” and from past Resident Directors. One notable person that we receive calls from is an alumnus from the ’80s who used to carol during his time here at the University. He told us they would carry barrels of alcohol to the basement, where they would carol and drink while singing. Ironically, they would drink and carol in a building that is now a substance-free environment!

Do you have someone on the team dedicated to logging these statistics? 

Logging the statistics is the Dial-A-Carol committee’s responsibility. We mark down the countries/states that we have received calls from on a hand-drawn map. We also have a separate meter dedicated to tracking how often the reigning queen’s (Mariah Carey) song “All I Want for Christmas is You” is requested, known as the “Mariah Meter.”

What do you think the Dial-A-Carol tradition gives people—both the callers and the volunteers?

Angel Sierra: “I believe that the Dial-A-Carol tradition gives people a sense of holiday spirit, relief from stress, and a sense of happiness during a time in which it may be difficult due to seasonal depression, work, or exams. All of these are able to be gained free of charge and it is also able to be reciprocated as callers receive their carol, but the volunteers may receive an experience that would lift their spirit and make new memories with the people around them.”

Joeal Ammar, current Snyder R.A.: “I would say it helps me do good for the different groups of people that call for Dial-A-Carol. It’s always special singing to little kids and all the way to grown adults, while also of course helping relieve stress and give others holiday spirit.”

To see if the students reach their goal of 10,000 calls, be sure to follow the Dial-A-Carol Facebook page, and be sure to request a carol yourself by calling 217-332-1882!


Illinois Public Media Clef Notes

Clef Notes

Illinois Arts Council Agency

These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.