And here we are with puzzle 4,002 appearing today (that’s 20 January and it’s a Times Quick Cryptic), while the forthcoming fortnight adds three more – two in The Independent, with a Pangakupu coming up in The Guardian on Thursday 25 January.
I said that this time I’d look at the Church Times Christmas Crossword from late last year, so this may turn into a setter’s blog and confound future cruciverbal historians by being in the wrong place! But here we go:
On Christmas morning, after a breakfast of champagne and panettone (you mean you don’t?), we listen to the broadcast of the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons, and Carols that BBC Radio 4 put out at 3pm on UK Christmas Eve. Now that the College puts up a PDF of the service booklet a few days beforehand, it’s much easier to feel part of things.
I’d wanted to do a puzzle based on the Festival for years – it is well-known, and has a familiar structure, and a lot of recognised content. But it is a lot of content – you’d need a large barred grid to accommodate material covering all nine lessons plus 13-15 carols. (It is, after all, and whatever the Microsoft punctuation checker may claim to the contrary ‘…Nine Lessons [comma] and Carols’ – that comma is there to stop you doing anything zeugmatic with the ‘Nine’.)
So when Don Manley suggested it as a theme for the big Church Times Christmas crossword, I was able to indulge myself. He also suggested using Definition and Letter Mixture (DLM) clues.
I started by downloading the four most recent orders of service (from 2019-2022) and embarked on a sort of census.
The lessons, of course, remain the same, and even the readers (‘A chorister’, ‘A representative of the city of Cambridge’) do not vary much. You have to start with ‘Once in Royal…’ and end with ‘Herald Angels’ and ‘Adeste fidelis’, but otherwise the carols do chop and change quite a lot. Each year, for instance, there’s a newly commissioned carol from a leading composer (Cheryl Frances-Hoad in 2023) – not a feature I was going to be able to capture.
But I could enumerate how often other carols appeared from the four downloaded orders of service. ‘This is the truth sent from above…’ clocked up an appearance every year just like the big three. Behind it came four on three: ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing…’, ‘The angel Gabriel…’, ‘While shepherds watched…’ and ‘O little town of Bethlehem’. These all had to go in, but once I was down among the twos, I chose ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ as a personal favourite and ‘Away in a Manger’ because I thought it would be expected. And I threw in a singleton (‘Unto Us a Boy is Born’) as a souvenir of participating in a congregation struggling with what David Willcocks gives the male-only verse 5.
And that was it. Each reading in the order of service comes with a TL;DR, executive summary kind of sentence at the top. I worked through these, and the more familiar lyrics of the carols, looking for useful strings of letters to anagram. I’d already decided to use the precise texts for the letter mixtures and add the definitions in a (for want of a better word) commentary.
So IRON LADY dropping out of ‘Once in Royal David’s city’ was a good omen, and I was very encouraged with the lengths of the potential answers that emerged (MONARCHISTS as an anagram of ‘On Christmas’ was also pleasing). I allowed for a few multiple choices (the first line of ‘The Angel Gabriel’ also yielded CAVEMAN, while HEATHER lurks in ‘Hark! The Herald Angels’) because I was going to have to fit all twenty words into the grid, and having a few alternatives would be helpful. In the end, Def Leppard made one of their rare appearances in the Church Times, but you take what you can get.
The Ghost of Christmas Crosswords Past tried to muscle in when last year’s preamble popped up in this year’s proof, but we sent it packing, and there we were. All that remained was to check the 2023 service to see how many I got right based on the preceding four years. The big three don’t count, obviously, but what of the eight I chose? When the results were in it was just one Angel Gabriel and one Little Town. But those two now look good bets for next year…
No puzzle going up this weekend as it’s a busy one. APEX clue-writers whose clues have yet to reach me will be getting the customary end-of-January reminder over the next couple of days, and the list of clues for voting will come out in early February.
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