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“A Mad Mixture of Sleigh Bells and Telephone Bells”: The History of Dial-a-Carol at the University of Illinois

Written by Anna Trammell

The holiday season is once again upon us and along with it an Illinois tradition returns. From December 7 until December 13, thousands of callers from around the world will dial in to Snyder Hall 24 hours a day to be serenaded with yuletide tunes.

An advertisement for Dial-a-Carol (Daily Illini, 12 December 1975)

Betty Gordon is commonly credited with conceiving of the Dial-a-Carol idea around 1960 when she was working as a clerk in Snyder Hall. “The story goes that she was speaking with a friend on the phone and her friend mentioned she could hear Betty’s radio playing while they were talking. Betty was inspired and thought it would be a neat idea to play carols on the phone to friends. She started Dial-a-Carol with the help of Snyder Hall residents and the rest is history,” said Snyder Hall RA George Carrera in 2008. [1]

Snyder Sanctum member Steve Price participates in Dial-a-Carol in 1962 (Daily Illini 11 December 1962)

Traditionally, the student volunteers have kicked off their 24 hour carol hotline with a call to Gordon at 12:01 am on the first day of the event. “As the students always do, they asked me if there was anything special I would like to hear,” Betty said in 1982, “Then no matter what I said, they sang ‘Jingle Bells’ at the top of their voices… After they sang, I told them the same thing I always do: what you lack in talent, you certainly make up in volume.” [2]

The early years of Dial-a-Carol were managed by members of the group Snyder Sanctum who occupied the second floor of East Snyder Hall. They cleared out the furniture in freshman Gary Allen’s room and filled the space with telephones, turntables, and holiday records. [3] The Daily Illini described the scene as “a mad mixture of sleigh bells and telephone bells.” [4] Callers would be greeted with a volunteer saying the name of the next carol that was to play. They would then hold the receiver up to the turntable for the duration of the song. “We hope you have enjoyed listening to your carol. Good evening and Merry Christmas,” ended the call. [5]. Over the years, the students put the records aside and began singing the festive songs to callers. By 1966, residents from all over Snyder Hall served as volunteers and “carol headquarters” had taken over the lounge. So many students wanted to volunteer, organizers were forced to limit shifts to hour long time blocks. [6]

By 1962, the group was already answering nearly 4,000 calls. While most calls came in from Illinois, callers did ring in from other parts of the country. After a New York radio announcer mentioned the event, calls came in from those who “just wanted to find out if it was really true.” [7] A 1966 United Press article generated calls from Miami, Alaska, and Hawaii. [8]  In 1973, a Dial-a-Carol alum paid a hefty long distance fee to call in from Austria for a carol. [9] As the tradition gained notoriety, calls began pouring in from all over the world.  In 2015 alone, students answered 16, 354 phone calls from 70 countries. Calls had come in from all 50 states within 14 hours. [10]

Some members of the 2015 Dial-a-Carol Team (@DialaCarol Tweet 30 November 2016)

Champaign-Urbana residents are the most frequent callers, and early volunteers were particularly excited about the cheer they were able to bring to area children and hospital patients. “Little kids call Dial-a-Carol before they go to school in the morning and when they get home in the evening. It’s really funny to hear them- especially when a group call together- fighting over whose turn it is to listen,” a Snyder Sanctum statement said in 1962. [11] That year, the Dial-a-Carol phone number was very similar to the number of a local professor who found himself singing holiday tunes to the mistaken callers. [12]

You can join in on this Illini tradition by dialing 217-332-1882 24 hours a day from December 14 to December 21. For more information, check out the Dial-a-Carol website.

[1] “Carols and Carolers Just a Phone Call Away at the University of Illinois,” University of Illinois News Bureau Press Release, 9 December 2008. Record Series 39/1/1 Box 51.

[2] “Dial-a-Carol,” University of Illinois News Bureau Press Release, 17 December 1982. Record Series 39/1/1 Box 51.

[3] “Latest Christmas Idea: Snyder’s Dial-a-Carol,” Daily Illini, 11 December 1962.

[4] “Call it a Sing-a-Thon? Dorm Furnished Round the Clock Carols,” Daily Illini, 13 December 1962.

[5] “Latest Christmas Idea: Snyder’s Dial-a-Carol,” Daily Illini, 11 December 1962.

[6] “Dial-a-Carol Booming,” Daily Illini, 9 December 1966.

[7] “Dial-a-Carol Still Strong,” Daily Illini, 14 December 1962.

[8] “Dial-a-Carol Booming,” Daily Illini, 9 December 1966.

[9] “Snyder Residents Continue Dial-a-Carol,” Daily Illini, 19 December 1973.

[10] @DialaCarol Tweets, 19 December 2015 9:05 am and 9:07 am.

[11] “Call it a Sing-a-Thon? Dorm Furnished Round the Clock Carols,” Daily Illini, 13 December 1962.

[12] Ibid.