Every autumn for the past two decades, Sandrine Shaw, a longtime fanfiction writer, has penned letters, asking her fellow fans for an extremely niche kind of holiday gift.

Fic writers often create things for each other—it’s long been noted that fan creators work within gift economies, sharing fanfiction, fanart, and other transformative works within their communities for free. But they might also participate in more formal sorts of gift exchanges: structured events where you can request a work about your favorite characters or fictional relationships—and another person might just go ahead and create it for you.

Gift exchanges like this happen throughout the year, but they proliferate during the holiday season. Sometimes run like Secret Santas, other times as free-for-alls where anyone can fulfill anyone else’s request, they might be hyper-specific or genre-wide, but often they involve things that are already popular in the fandom world—think pop-culture juggernauts like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), or the manga My Hero Academia, or CW’s Supernatural. At the very least, they’re often hosted within established groups of fans: people who have already come together around something that fascinates (and/or frustrates!) them.

But in December, thousands of fans—Sandrine among them—participate in Yuletide, an immensely wide-ranging small-fandom exchange that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “I’ve been in some larger fandoms that produced a lot of fic, but I also regularly get attached to tiny ‘fandoms of one’ that have little to no fanfic written for them,” Sandrine says. “Often the only way to read any fanfic for those canons is to write it myself, and that doesn’t quite scratch the itch. The main appeal of Yuletide was—and still, to a degree, is—to have someone else write fic in those fandoms.”

For her, those fandoms of one can be truly niche—take the NBC drama The Firm, for example, a sequel to the 1991 film adaptation of John Grisham’s novel. It was canceled after just one season. “When I first requested it in Yuletide, there were less than a handful of fics for it overall on AO3 [Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfic site]—and not a single one for my favorite character,” she says. She started nominating and requesting works about the show in 2012, the year it aired, and continued doing so in subsequent Yuletides. “It’s basically a nonexistent fandom,” she says. “And yet over the years, I’ve received so many brilliant fics for it, some of them over 10,000 or even over 20,000 words, and I cherish every single one.”

Single-season NBC television show <em>The Firm</em>, with actress Tricia Helfer and actor Shaun Majumder, may not have a "fandom of one," but it's close.
Single-season NBC television show The Firm, with actress Tricia Helfer and actor Shaun Majumder, may not have a “fandom of one,” but it’s close. moviestillsdb

During Yuletide, fans nominate a huge host of fanfiction subjects: an obscure fantasy book series, or an indie movie they’ve been thinking about all year, or a one-season television sequel to an early-90s Tom Cruise movie. From that massive list of nominations, participants write letters detailing what fandoms from the list they’d like to receive stories about—and what they’d be willing to write for others. And in the matching process—aided by code built into the site—they might find the one person in the world who also loves an extremely niche thing as much as they do.

Yuletide was initially hosted on its own site, and has been hosted on Archive of Our Own since 2009. The AO3 was very new in 2009; a decade and a half later, it just celebrated 12 million fanworks posted. Juggernaut fandoms make up a decent portion of those works—in the three examples above, for instance, fans have posted more than 500,000 stories (and other creative works such as drawings, comics, and videos) for the MCU, and around 300,000 each for My Hero Academia and Supernatural.

In contrast, the official limit for Yuletide eligibility is fewer than 1,000 works on the AO3. That might mean a small fandom for a recent television show or book, or a long-running one that people revisit each year. Occasionally, something will qualify at the start of an astronomical rise: the Chinese drama The Untamed, for instance, was Yuletide-eligible in 2019, and has gone on to be one of the most popular fandoms in the years since, with more than 50,000 stories published to date. (This, of course, means it’s not eligible anymore.)

Actors Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles, and Jared Padalecki starred in the long-running CW show <em>Supernatural</em>, one of the most popular fanfiction properties.
Actors Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles, and Jared Padalecki starred in the long-running CW show Supernatural, one of the most popular fanfiction properties. The CW Television Network/moviestillsdb

But Yuletide is far more likely to generate works for those fandoms of one—or a dozen, or a hundred. “I had come up from anime fandom, and those shows necessarily had smaller audiences and were frequently Yuletide eligible,” says the fanfiction writer known as Petronia, who browsed the exchange’s works for years before participating. “It was an opportunity for people to write and receive a fic that they might not have otherwise, and get eyeballs that they might not have otherwise either.” Many of her fandom friends were early participants, and she says Yuletide looked like “a holiday party event that everyone around me was engaged in.” Eventually, she joined the party herself.

The sheer variety of Yuletide fandoms is staggering, and invariably contains many things that most of us have never heard of. That nicheness stands in stark contrast to the algorithm-fueled flattening of the broader culture—and increasingly of fandom itself, where worries about reach and engagement, even without any money changing hands, leads people to gravitate toward popular characters and story types.

Yuletide fandoms also push against the boundaries of what we tend to think of the source material. Usually, the subjects of fanfiction are television, films, and books, skewing toward sci-fi and fantasy—though fic writers do use the form to engage in meme-creation, like the nearly 800 stories written for the Tumblr-created fake Martin Scorcese film Goncharov, or the 173 works about Ever Given, the container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal.

<em>Ever Given</em>, the ship that famously blocked the Suez Canal, in 2021, is the subject of nearly 200 fan-created works.
Ever Given, the ship that famously blocked the Suez Canal, in 2021, is the subject of nearly 200 fan-created works. 2021 Maxar Technologies/DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d/Getty Images

Some Yuletide fic echoes these sort of memey, nontraditional subjects—take, for example, the zombie fic entitled “Wait Wait Don’t Eat Me,” which caught the enthusiastic attention of its subjects at NPR. One of the notable fandoms of Yuletide 2020 was Luke Burns’s satirical McSweeney’s article “FAQ: The ‘Snake Fight’ Portion of Your Thesis Defense,” the popularity of which probably reflects the fact that many Yuletide writers and readers have indeed been to grad school.

Anna Wilson, a longtime Yuletide participant and assistant professor of English at Harvard University, is interested in the way the event challenges those affective boundaries. She cites a class she teaches every year, “Medieval Fanfiction,” which uses the lens of fic to examine how medieval literature was received by audiences. “Fannishness is a triangle between a person, a text, and a community—and it’s a particular way of being invested in something,” she says. To her, Yuletide “is a place where people are constantly having to build and test out that relationality for the first time, with texts that previously they had thought about in a different mode.”

For some, that might be a single McSweeney’s article. In Wilson’s work, it’s what’s called historical real-person fiction, or RPF, which is normally dominated by contemporary sports stars or musical artists. But during Yuletide, the full span of history is in play. Wilson has studied historical RPF Yuletide letters, in which participants detail what they hope to receive. “I have a thing to confess, and that thing is: I love Marcus Tullius Cicero,” one letter read. “No, seriously, I adore him.” (That’s the Roman statesman and philosopher assassinated in 43 B.C., if you’re not a fan of the Roman Empire. Cicero wasn’t a fan, either.)

“People are going, ‘I read about this in class, and I couldn’t help but …’” Wilson explains. “They’re talking about places where there’s been bleed between fannish modes of reading and what you might call scholarly modes of reading.” The history classroom, she notes, doesn’t usually leave space for “I adore Cicero.” “They’ve read historical scholarship, and what they want now is something fictional but still accurate to what drew them to the people in the first place—and they’re trying to communicate that to somebody.”

Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, with some fans, maybe?
Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, with some fans, maybe? Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Connections over the rare and unexpected and personally beloved—Roman statesmen, cult webcomics, popular prestige shows that never really caught on in fandom—are at the heart of the event. “What I really love about Yuletide is the potential for kismet,” says Petronia, “the story that, as a recipient, I always wished existed, [and] turns out to be the story someone else always wanted to write. The idea that I always had percolating as a writer, that was too niche to put energy into, turns out to have an audience after all—even an audience of one, which is all I need.”

Sandrine echoes that love of serendipitous connections. “It’s great when there’s an obscure fandom of your heart which you thought was something only you cared for, and then someone else offers it—or requests it!—and you realize it wasn’t actually a fandom of one after all.” The longevity of the event and its community can even lead to more lasting fandoms of more-than-one: Someone might notice you requesting the same thing year after year and finally watch or read the source material, just so they can write about it for you. “I feel so lucky that this has happened to me a couple of times,” Sandrine says. “That truly feels like a Yuletide miracle!”

There are many reasons people write fic, but its largely non-monetized status means it’s often a true labor of love. The gift exchange makes the interchange between fans explicit—and there’s something particularly special about Yuletide and these moments of kismet. “I keep telling myself every year that this year I won’t do it,” Sandrine says. “But then I imagine waking up on Christmas Day and not having a Yuletide gift, and I really think I’d miss it!” As Yuletide enters its third decade, its many returning participants clearly feel the same way—and in a few days, they’ll wake up having received their own labors of love.

Elizabeth Minkel has written about fans and fandom for WIRED, The Guardian, The New Yorker, New Statesman, and many other publications. She’s cohost of the Fansplaining podcast and co-curates the Hugo-finalist newsletter “The Rec Center.”