When I was four-and-a-half I received the best Christmas gift of my life: a pink, child-size Barbie convertible. I can still remember the surprise and incandescent joy I felt when I found out that it was my Christmas gift. Not surprisingly, gifts are still important to me to this day – and, it seems, to a lot of other people. The existence of Quonsmas is a testament to this fact. Quonsmas, if you haven’t heard of it before, is a Secret Santa exchange. But it’s not just any Secret Santa exchange: It’s a Secret Santa exchange on the Internet.

Begun in 2007 with a suggestion posted by user parmanparman on Metafilter’s Metatalk blog, it has become a way for Metafilter users all over the world to connect and celebrate the holidays together. The system is simple: After signing up, an organizer connects you to another participant, who is then connected to another participant entirely, creating a long chain of gifters and giftees based on mail locations: U.S.-only, U.K.-only, Europe, or International, among others.

Quonsmas isn’t the only, or even the largest, online gift-exchange; in fact, Reddit’s six-year-old Secret Santa — which signed up more than 120,000 participants this year — dwarfs Metafilter’s several times over. But Quonsmas has always been my gift exchange, since I first signed up as a college student. And with its intimate community of, this year, 437 gifters, it also symbolizes some of the very powerful, personal ways that people connect over the Internet.

In an era when our Internet friends are largely our Facebook friends — 71 percent of online adults use Facebook — it can feel rare to connect authentically with an online stranger, and even more rare to make an offline connection — in this case by gift. While quonsar and quonsee may never meet (and most don’t), they’re still creating a real-world link. As this year’s organizer, julen, notes, “secret quonsar … [is] a way to bond with the community and people within it, and to experience some holiday cheer outside the expectations and stresses of their off-line lives and holiday plans.”

“The interesting thing is that for a surprisingly large section of the group it’s about the act of giving … People like diving into a person’s posting history and seeing who they are and figuring out what they would like,” she said. Julen, as an organizer, gets many more queries from people trying to make sure their gift made it than from people who haven’t yet received their gift.

All of this raises interesting questions: why, after all, would you send a gift to an Internet stranger in the first place? How would you know their taste, or be able to verify that they received it? The answers are, of course, you won’t – though questionnaires can help – and you can’t. Julen estimates that every year 6-8 second-chance gifters will be needed to regift to those people whose presents never arrived. As volunteers have gone up, this number has actually gone down, thanks to improved communication that lets organizers identify and deal with problems earlier. Many senders will also try to resend a gift that didn’t make it the first time.

It’s also true that sending a gift to a stranger can make you realize how impersonal much of gift giving is. Here — take this thing, and in exchange give me this other thing. The flip side is that every gift is also an attempt at connection. Gifts are a way to remind someone that you’re thinking of them.

When I first signed up for Quonsmas, I was a college student on a limited budget, and I loved getting mail — real mail. That it was ‘from the Internet’ just enhanced the appeal. I’ve done it ever since, for three years running, because it feels like a way to connect with a community I love. In the years following, sending a gift and tracking the thank-you thread became a way to connect with a community I love.

As Quonsmas is an international event, every season gifts appear from one end of the globe to the other, tracing food, cultures, or the simple discovery of a kindred spirit – in addition to being an all-important source of gift ideas. But for many participants, like me, the gifts aren’t even the point. What’s important is that we’re connected, a giant web of gifters and giftees coming together to celebrate the holiday season.

Thread updates from around the world, thanking the giver after opening the package or, very occasionally, noting that the package is sitting at home waiting to be opened on Christmas Day, are one way that the organizers keep track of the system as a whole.

Quonsmas organizers — this year there are three: julen, a participant since 2007 and volunteer since 2009, articseal and phunniemee — keep Quonsmas running through spreadsheets and hard work. They ensure it’s an egalitarian swap, of gifts between $10-20 made between two people regardless of how long they’ve been Metafilter members or how often they post (though Metafilter membership is a requirement for joining).

Reading these threads, it’s clear that the other answer as to why Quonsmas works is that it runs on faith. Julen notes:

There’s a real unspoiled quality to secret quonsar. People don’t sign up to be jerks; no one plans to get a gift but not send one. They understand that a gift might be late because real life got in the way; they care if a gift is lost or stolen or disappears. We enjoy seeing what other people get … It makes us happy to think a small gift might make a difference in someone’s life.

Like a more familiar holiday trope in popular culture — Santa Claus — Quonsmas requires belief. It just happens to be a belief in people, instead of a man on a magical sleigh.

This year the first Quonsmas gift landed on Nov. 14, a full two weeks before the send-by date. At this moment we’re still only partway through the season, as gifts are estimated to arrive as late as mid-January. While I don’t remember all the gifts I have given or received through Quonsmas — with the exception of this year’s lovely gift of Royal Blend tea and gingerbread popcorn from a user in the U.K. — I will always remember the camaraderie of the community that created Quonsmas, and surrounds it, and how they have made me feel welcome.

Merry Quonsmas.

Liked that? Try these!