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In late October of 1995, I signed up for my first holiday fanwork exchange via a Sailor Moon message board I was a member of, after discovering online fandom the year before through the magic of the Internet. I wasn't new to secret Santa–type exchanges, as these were pretty common at school, but it was my first introduction to fannish gift exchanges, where the sole purpose was to make someone something based on their interests in a story or characters, rather than purchase them a gift. It was the first time I was actively excited about writing something for someone who wasn't just myself, or my parents, since I had yet to interest any of my friends in either original writing or fanfiction.

I sent in three prompts to the moderators and received my assignment in return with three prompts to choose from from another mystery person on the message board. I loved this system a lot because I was going to get a story of my very own from someone who got why I loved the Sailor Moon and the characters so much. The message board wasn't very large, so the community we had was very tightknit and friendly, even when we disagreed. That sense of safety and belonging made the fandom exchange infinitely more comfortable for me than the exchanges with classmates whom I didn't know very well, and who never really cared to know me. This was before I had close fandom friends, too, when I was still mostly lurking and learning.

The prompts I received, although I can't remember them in any detail now, made me really happy. Someone wanted something I could absolutely give them and something I was excited to give them. I could make someone happy by creating a brand new story for them! I only had to write one of the prompts, but fandom was so new and exciting to me at the time. I was also not yet crippled under the weight of the knowledge that my writing wasn't very good yet, and so of course I overcompensated. I wrote pretty long (and in hindsight, likely terrible) pieces for all three of the prompts, and sent them along to the moderators a full week before the deadline, pleased with myself and really excited about what I might get back.

Almost 20 years later, it's that time of year again, when holiday fanwork exchanges gear up and start the process of organizing so people can request things they want and make gifts for other people—some have been up and running since September. I'm not taking part in any this year, but it's still one of my favorite parts of fandom. It's so fascinating to watch the generosity of people who take the time to build mutually beneficial projects just to create more fanwork and make other fans happy, plus the generosity of the people who choose to take part and give up their time to make something for someone else.

There are tons of fanwork exchanges out there now that make that first exchange I took part in look incredibly small: Yuletide, launched in 2003 and aimed at creating fanfiction for rare fandoms that aren't as popular and likely to have active fanbases, is ostensibly one of the most widely known fandom exchanges. Some fandoms that don't qualify for Yuletide, having too many stories to be considered rare by Yuletide guidelines, host their own holiday exchanges.

Yuletide is the inspiration for an entire array of different types of holiday exchanges, too, to address different needs, commitment levels, and mediums across communities. Fandom Stocking, a multifandom exchange, allows people to create "stockings" in pre-coded text with their fanwork wishlist. Moderators post the stockings as new entries, and then other participants come along and fill the stockings where they're able to do so. All the comments left to the post are then revealed on a pre-determined date for the person to enjoy. Other media have exchanges, too, like for fanvids. Festivids, founded in 2009, is the rare fandom exchange for people to request vids from sources that might not otherwise get considered by vidders. Festivids is one of my favorite exchanges, since in 2012 I discovered several amazing vids via the project. It was able to introduce me to new vidders and the wider world of vidding culture, and gave me an excellent entry point to vidding as an art I hadn't been able to really find before.

The scope and amount of work that goes into exchanges like this is immense. I run DOINK! Final Fantasy Exchange each year, and it's not a holiday exchange for several good reasons. The main one, though, is that running it is time consuming even at a time of a year where there aren't lots of family holidays; it can consume four to five months out of the year. My co-moderators and I agreed early on it wasn't doable for us and that we needed to stay away from the end of the year so we didn't burn ourselves out.

Running exchanges during the end of the year for the holidays means that the projects need to start gearing up in September and October (sometimes even earlier on the part of moderators!) so people have time to create for December and January gift giving. The responsibility is huge, and expectations for a good experience really high, and participation and compliance by all participants often is unpredictable, like any project with a deadline and volunteer participants. Moderators run these projects for free amid all their other end-of-year work, family obligations, and religious observances. Looking back to my early days in fandom, I had no clue of scope, the amount of manual work that likely had to be done to make those early exchanges I took part in work so well, before the third-party tools improved enough to automate some of the processes. I want to go back in time and give the moderators I took for granted a serious high five.

Just trying to imagine running my exchange, including my four co-mods, without the gift that is shareable Google spreadsheets makes me cringe; cue the horror film soundtrack.

The existence of these events, run for free, by fans and for fans, given how much time investment they require, is nothing short of amazing. That's why this time of year is one of my favorites in fandom. Not only is there a huge outpouring of generosity and fannish love, the first weeks of the new year are inevitably filled with all the recommendations you could ever want to find all the pieces you missed in the initial rush of work. So much of this time of year is sharing our love of stories through the conduit of making more stories in all mediums possible. Whether it's taking part of the communal activity of writing a letter about your interests to help out whoever may have gotten your prompts; brainstorming with friends over possible ideas for a story, art, or vid; refreshing Is It Yuletide Yet? and cheering people on; leaving a few strangers a short gift of fic or art and expecting nothing in return; or volunteering as a pinch hitter to complete a set of prompts for someone who had to bow out to prevent their recipient from being disappointed, all of these things make this time of year really special. All these pieces are part of a vibrant community celebration that happens every single year. I hope it keeps happening for many years to come so everyone gets to have the excitement of their first exchange, too, just like I did.

For my first exchange, I got a lovely story from someone who I squealed at via capslock for several days. My stories seemed to make my recipient happy, even though I cringe a little in embarrassment thinking about them now. These girls—my age, even though they lived in the UK—were some of my first fandom friends, too, until we lost touch when we started college. I've met lots of people via exchanges, people who would go on to help me improve my writing and tell even greater stories. Sometimes it's not even just about creating something new for someone and getting something in return. It's also about making something, whether it's a story, a piece of art, a vid, or some icons for someone you might find a friend in, too.

Renay has been writing SF and fantasy fan fiction, criticism, and commentary since the early 1990s. She has founded and contributed to several gaming fandom fanwork newsletters and fanwork exchanges and serves as staff within the Organization for Transformative Works. You can find more of her work at Lady Business or follow her on Twitter.
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