❄ Our Christmas tradition ❄
It’s December of 2015, and in a small chatroom on an obscure fan wiki①, a group of us are organising festivities on a Minecraft server.
The server’s been running for a month or so, but there’s a history going back a year further. There’s a long lineage of worlds presided over by a well-known community member, but his hard disk recently turned itself into tinsel; so, a long-standing friend of his — let’s call him Ioan — took up the mantle, and spun up a creative-mode server to keep us entertained.
Ioan doesn’t know how to portforward properly, so we all connect via the free tier of Hamachi, three groups of five stretched to their breaking point. The chat is abuzz with ideas and promises, and we decide to put up a Christmas tree in the middle of the simulated savannah.
Why a savannah? I’m not sure, really. The savannah stretches for hundreds of blocks around the spawn town, but we’re no strangers to exploration, and it wouldn’t have been that hard to go find some snow-covered plain. But a savannah we chose, and upon a savannah we built.
The best builder among us is someone by the chat handle of Squirrel,② who is widely respected in the community, and is among the nicest people any of us have ever met. He sets up a spindly little spruce tree, plops some snow down, and quickly puts together a sign reading “Merry Cristmas”. Nobody notices the misspelling, but nobody cares; we’re all just glad to celebrate. People have about a week to make presents for each other; they range from simple chests with a book inside to elaborate houses. On Christmas Day, the presents are opened, coördinates travelled to, and everyone has a great time. “Same time next year?”
The place where we celebrated… doesn’t really exist any more. Not meaningfully. A scare involving an accidental
/kill @e and a cube full of explosives lead us to the conclusion that we had to switch to a new map, but not before giving the old one one last visit. There was this adventure map that wove its way throughout the world, telling a story full of in-jokes and references to previous servers; i’d never be able to explain it all, but it was apparently cause enough to vandalise dozens of towns and projects across the map, all for the sake of lore. Nobody ever thought to make a backup.
So, we started all over again, switching to a different map. Due to justifications lost to the sands of time, that was also deemed inadequate, and it was on our third map of many that our second Christmas took place.
It’s December of 2016, and on a poorly-moderated Discord guild, a group of us are organising festivities on Ioan’s Minecraft server.
Acknowledging our mistakes, we this time set up shop in a taiga biome, planting a stumpy little tree that could easily pass as one generated by the game. Surrounding this snow-crested hill are newly-built structures; we recently moved the spawn town to encourage building elsewhere, and Squirrel is the main architect of our new plain of rebirth.
The celebrations continue much as last time; i build Squirrel a little underground house, our resident trouble-maker at least puts the effort in to custom-enchant some armour. It’s nice. We all reminisce on past incidents, thank each other for the gifts, and once again ask — “Same time next year?”
The poorly-moderated Discord guild grew ever more so, and though poor Ioan was its proprietor, he was locked in a situation where if he ever did anything about the neglect and toxicity, half the community would have up and left. So we retreated into a small group chat of eleven or so people, one that grew out of an older chat dedicated to organising things on the server, and largely lived our online lives in there.
For reasons, again, related to the strange interconnected lore, the server’s world came to a natural close. Backups were, this time, made. We went onto a fourth map, less anarchic than its three predecessors, its builds more packed into neatly organised cities. I built a railway under everyone’s noses. Most impressive of all, Squirrel linked together already-in-place ice spikes to build a great, Game of Thrones-style ice wall, framing the plains that would come December be the home of our third annual celebration.
It’s December of 2017, and in an isolated group chat, our clan is building an elaborate Christmas-themed town, a definite one up on our previous present-piles, on Ioan’s Minecraft server. But something is amiss.
Squirrel is not there to partake. His message frequency has gradually dropped off during the year, but come August, he’s left entirely, his last post being a final “k”. Ioan keeps in touch with him via other methods, but his accounts there soon turn to ash as well.
We’re all shocked at the time. In retrospect, it was obvious that tensions were simmering, but we were all oblivious to our own behaviour. Us moving to a new chat never removed the toxic people, it just meant there were fewer of them spewing more concentrated toxicity. But they were friends, and they’d always been there. How could it ever be different?
I pop a present under our spindly tree anyway, and write Squirrel a letter in case he ever decides to return. Hopefully he’ll be back by the same time next year.
It was January of 2018, and the server — Ioan’s second public server, that is, where we’d all come back to — was on fire. A mismanaged public election led to ever-more fighting and toxicity. Many of us couldn't put up with it any more. We left, most all heading to a certain greener pasture: another server, one that actually grew out of our small group chat, but was eventually opened up to the public.
All things considered, it went shockingly well; the old owner had been pressured out of office for being a bigoted arse, and in the turmoil’s wake, he had appointed me captain of the ship. Missing the experience of playing together, i did what anyone would: set up a portforward, and host a Minecraft server.
The Discord guild grew, and with it requests to join our Minecraft world. I obliged, and soon it wasn’t rare to see 10 or more people all playing at once. It was even more rigid in its organisation than Ioan’s previous server; due to an early focus by one builder on expanding their city, there were hardly any builds outside of the big towns, and a well-developed railway network connected them all.
It’s December of 2018, and while Ioan’s server languishes on its fifth world, making only token efforts at festivities③, dozens of people are buzzing about the new guild’s world — but i’m the only one bothering to work on any festivities. I set up a Christmas tree in the south of the world; i mean to build more, but run out of time before the 25th arrives. The market will have to wait.
Presents are exchanged, smiles are had, but there’s an air of uncertainty as to whether we’ll be doing this again next year. After all, so much has changed since 2017… what else could happen?
The divorce happened. A long-time admin, who i’d long had disagreements with in private, set up her own shop, taking about half of the active userbase with her.④ I don’t blame her. I was more of an arsehole than i like to think. The guild trundled on.
Ioan had long given up on ever being able to tame his community’s own toxicity. He disowned the public server, and split the group chat once again, this time to a group of just seven of us who were tired of the other four’s antics. The new group included, thanks to my badgering, one member from the other guild, who had never set foot on any of Ioan’s five worlds.
And yet… Ioan tried again. He’d learnt from being a moderator on the other guild, where toxicity was… less tolerated,⑤ and was now particularly selective about who he let through.
The biggest surprise of all was that it worked. The group chat practically emptied out, and people from the other guild flooded in too, all just grateful for somewhere where it didn’t feel like everyone was permanently two steps away from slitting another’s throat. The guild remained nameless.
It’s December of 2019, and there are two active guilds with two active Minecraft servers, both making plans for the winter season. My guild sets up a German-style Christmas market, and once again exchanges plentiful gifts. Unfortunately, Ioan’s new guild is less lucky, through no fault of its own; his internet connection isn’t very good these days, and i’m the only one that manages to finish a present in time. We don’t even get to finish the tree.
I write Squirrel another letter. Despite the much more pleasant atmosphere on our community, he’s still not back; not that he’d know, of course. It’s more of a therapeutic or religious thing than anything at this point. One day there’ll be a Second Coming of the Squirrel. One day.
2020 arrived, and with it came a pandemic of unpredictable proportions. World governments, reacting quickly, locked down their countries, telling everyone to stay home, restrictions ebbing and flowing throughout the year like the tides of an acidic sea.
It was a stress test for Discord guilds. When people don’t have a choice but to stay at home and surf the web, where do they spend their time? The answer, it appears, is not on my guild, which was hæmorrhaging members thanks to its twin successors, but on Ioan’s. In a nod to how the game brought us together, his guild was christened with a name and icon based on one of the strangest parts of Minecraft’s history: the far lands.
It’s December of 2020, and we’re all just desperate for a normal Christmas. My old guild⑥ has 67 messages per day; Ioan’s has 6,700. In a reversal of the past two years, my server doesn’t even open for the month, while a spree of building occurs on Ioan’s, now hosted by me — his aging computer and haphazard internet are unable to bear the load.
For the first time in ages, it feels like we’re all together, with no signs of drama, no splits, no toxicity — just one community making one unified build for the holidays. It's a beautiful hybrid of the now-usual town builds with the classical anarchy of random things everywhere: there's a town market, but also the Gävle goat, a fish tube, and a random statue of Ded Moroz.
We’ve had to add more presents under the tree, because too many people wanted to make them: by my count, there are already 30(!) gifts, locked under bedrock, just waiting to be unwrapped come tomorrow… and, somewhere in that great big pile, there's one last letter to a departed friend.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
A post-script: If anyone knows anyone using the screen-names “Squirrel719”, “Gwiwer179”, “Aragataran”, or some permutation of the previous… do get in touch.