CHICAGO — The phones are jingling off the hook at Dial-a-Carol, a student-run project on the University of Illinois' Champaign campus. It's a hotline of sorts for people who prefer hearing holiday music sung by a choir of amateurs who've been up all night studying.
The carols echoing in the lobby of Snyder Hall may be out of tune at times, but the voices ring with youthful energy.
"They're not music majors. They're singing from their hearts," said Kirsten Ruby, spokeswoman for the university's housing department.
The program was started in 1960 by a former hall secretary, Betty Gordon, and a group of dorm residents. Last year, the student volunteers took more than 4,000 calls from people all over the world requesting "Jingle Bells," "White Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Phone lines are open 24 hours a day until just before midnight Wednesday, Dec. 18. The number is 217-332-1882. When lines are busy, a recorded message greets callers with "Our first available caroler will be right with you."
Dial-a-Carol isn't raising money — and that's part of its charm. It coincides with final exams, giving students needed stress relief between tests.
"It's something fun to do when there's nothing other than studying to do," said 19-year-old Christian Dillon, a freshman architecture student from Chicago. He took carol requests for eight hours overnight Friday and was back Monday for more.
"You're sleepy, just all laughing and drinking coffee to keep each other awake," he said.
There are even Dial-a-Carol miracles.
Renee Nelson, 51, of Naperville, Ill., heard about it on the radio and decided to call.
"My niece Erin (Markovich) is a junior there. I called and she answered, but I did not know she would be there," she said. Nelson requested "Jingle Bells."
"She got a couple of her friends to back her up. ... You have to smile," Nelson said. "It's a bunch of college kids who could be doing anything else in their day. It was really cute."
Garrick Bradley, 22, an accounting major from South Holland, Ill., said he answered a Dial-a-Carol phone at 7 a.m. Monday, groggy from studying. The peppy voice on the line was a radio host in Phoenix asking him to sing "Feliz Navidad" on the air.
Other students came to his rescue: "I'm on a radio station live," he said. "I needed some help."
Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" is so popular the students keep track with a "Mariah Meter." The count Monday morning: 107 requests.
"I sing in the shower like everyone else," said 19-year-old Kelly Sarna, an aspiring pharmacist from New Lenox, Ill. "I've never been a part of a choir. It's more about the tradition. ... When I have kids, I'm going to look back at this and tell them I did Dial-a-Carol."
Singing to strangers who may be having trouble finding the Christmas spirit can be a moving experience.
"It really makes you feel you're doing some good," said Evan Lorenz, 19, a freshman psychology major from Aurora, Ill. "We don't even sound that good when we sing, but it really makes their day."