It's difficult to place the exact origins of Operation Delibird, the tradition that sees Pokémon players send out rare and exclusive monsters every Christmas. Gamespot messageboards mention it by name, but the idea was formed after the release of Pokémon X and Y in 2013, due to the addition of the Wonder Trade feature (renamed as Surprise Trade in the most recent games), which lets you send your Pokémon to a stranger with no idea of what you'll get in return.
Players use this feature to send out hundreds of rare Pokémon on Christmas Day and Boxing Day every year, to hopefully connect with children who received the game for Christmas and add something special to their first playthrough.
Operation Delibird was named after Operation Zubat - an attempt to flood the new Wonder Trade system with annoyingly common Zubats - and Delibird, a Father Christmas-cosplaying bird Pokémon with the signature move "Present". But, instead of annoying the recipient of your Pokémon, the intention is to trade something much more desirable as a Christmas gift.
Pokémon fan Diana Soreil hopes this year's incarnation of the tradition can spread a little Christmas cheer to other Pokémon players in the festive season, and fight back against the negativity in the community.
"No matter what your opinions are on the game's controversies, everyone can agree making someone's Christmas better is a good thing to do," she tells Eurogamer. "Almost everyone knows what it's like to be a kid with your first Pokémon game, full of wonder at the world unfolding around you on your screen."
She's been donating Pokémon on Christmas Day and Boxing Day since 2014, and wanted to make sure the kindness continued with the new games. Her positivity evidently struck a chord with Pokémon fans across the world, as a tweet she wrote about the tradition gathered over 40,000 likes.
I hope the pokemon fanbase does the thing again where we breed a ton of starters and version exclusives and send them out as mystery trades on Christmas and Dec 26, because you KNOW a bunch of kids get the game for Christmas— ? Diana Soreil ? @ ECCC (@silencedrowns) November 19, 2019
Much like Operation Delibird was salvaged from attempts to troll other players, this year the tradition hopes to salvage some positivity from a year where the Pokémon community hasn't bathed itself in glory. A vocal minority of players were upset not every one of the 1000+ monsters can be found in Pokémon Sword and Shield, so flooded social media with calls to boycott the new games, including harassing artists, developers and other fans. For Soreil, it's all about spreading positivity and kindness. "I love knowing that whoever gets something special just had their day made a little brighter," she explains. "The world is a trash fire lately, and while I can't do anything major to help, cheering someone up by flooding Surprise Trade with 300 Mimikyus is something small and easy I can actually do."
But, how can you be sure your Pokémon is going to a new player if the system is entirely random? It comes down to a combination of luck and repetition. Anyone taking part in this collective Christmas miracle knows the score, but little Billy trading his first Rookidee in Pokémon Shield for the first time on Christmas Day may not. So, if someone sending out a box of rare Pokémon gets another rare Pokémon in return, they'll simply send it back into the Surprise Trade network to another random stranger. They repeat this until they eventually receive something from the early stages of the game, at which point they've likely connected with someone who has just started the game, and hopefully sent a child a rare and wonderful Christmas present. The more Pokémon you send out, the higher the chances of finding a new player.
Six years ago, Bow received Pokémon X for Christmas. Aged nine at the time, she couldn't wait to start her Pokémon adventure.
"So on that Christmas day after opening my presents, I excitedly sat outside and played my brand new copy of Pokémon X," she tells Eurogamer. "I had just figured out how the Wonder Trade thing worked because I remember getting a whole box full of random Pokémon just to trade them away and see what I might get. I was a little kid and all, so even the Pokémon that are really common at later parts of the game made me really excited."
However her Christmas Day was transformed when a stranger traded her a shiny Ditto.
"I still remember how excited I got when I saw the blue little boy on my screen. I literally cried I was so happy! Not only was it a rare, shiny Pokémon, but Ditto is easily one of my favourites and, at the time, baby blue was my favourite colour.
"It impacted me a lot! Really made me feel extra special. I don't have Sword and Shield yet, but I wish I did so I could help make other kids feel the same way I did!"
Operation Delibird embodies the spirit of paying it forward to spread Christmas joy to new players across the world. And this is the reason Pokémon fan Chris Bennet is taking part for the first time this year.
"The old adage, 'It's better to give than it is to receive' has always rung true to me; especially this time of year," he explains. "There will be thousands of kids (and adults alike) worldwide who will be getting this game or even their first Switch for Christmas. I hope some of the Pokemon I'll be sending out will make someone's new journey a great experience.
"For me, Pokemon was always about trading, whether it was with a Gameboy Colour link cable or trading Pokemon cards. The internet and the technology of the Nintendo Switch has made trading so much easier and has expanded trading to more than just your neighbourhood or town."
Bennett is just one of the thousands of fans joining forces to spread Christmas cheer through the game. But, getting hold of 30 rare Pokémon can be a challenge. I knew I wanted in, but I wasn't sure how to go about finding enough rare Pokémon that someone else would value and treasure. So I got in touch with Kal, a trainer from Reddit, who tells me his gifts are simply "breedjects" (breeding rejects) - the leftover Pokémon from mass breeding sessions where players are looking for the most competitive stats or an elusive shiny.
Kal explains he tries to breed a shiny Pokémon for his brother every year as a Christmas gift. This year, he managed to find a Charmander with the rare colouring quite quickly, but he still has a box of 30 spare Charmanders that would otherwise be released into the wild. As Charmander is only available after you beat Pokémon Sword or Shield, he wants his surplus fiery bois to join strangers from the very start of their adventures. "Honestly the only reaction I want is for them to be happy," he says.
With that knowledge in hand, the next thing to decide was what Pokémon to send. Popular choices are rare Pokémon such as Turtonator, Drampa or Dhelmise; or monsters exclusive to one of the games such as Larvitar, Solosis or Goomy. Other popular options in previous years have been Christmas-themed, such as the eponymous Delibird, or Stantler who pulls Father Christmas' sleigh in the Pokémon canon. I'm serious.
However, I plumped for the starter Pokémon, Scorbunny, Grookey and Sobble. As you can only choose one of the three at the start of your adventure, I hoped I could send out a new Pokémon my unsuspecting recipient wouldn't have been able to find otherwise.
I started with Sobble, in case any new players were immediately regretting their decision to pick either of the other, less cute, starters. Having completed the Pokédex and using a foreign Ditto in the Nursery, I was also making sure that my chances for a shiny were the highest possible - a 0.0019 per cent chance.
I bred 30 Sobble, and the same number of Grookey and Scorbunny followed in just a couple of hours. Although I didn't find a shiny, I already felt kind and generous, like Father Switchmas with a big sack of Sobble to drop down strangers' chimneys. But why stop at Christmas? In future, maybe the community could come together for other holidays, sending Togepi at Easter or, if we hurry, Litwicks for Hanukkah? So long as nobody sends out lumps of Rolycoly for the naughty kids, it's going to be an exciting Christmas Eevee this year.
Whatever you can spare, it's worth sending something to make someone like Bow's Christmas that little bit more special. After all, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is sending rare Pokémon year upon year.