MGWCC #656

crossword 2:37 
meta 2:15 


hello and welcome to episode #656 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Poetry in Motion”. for this week 4 puzzle which came out on christmas day, the instructions tell us that the answer is a stocking stuffer. i typically don’t actually blog the last MGWCC of the year, as i’m usually traveling at this time of year. but this year is atypical for a number of reasons, isn’t it? anyway, here i am. what’s the theme of the puzzle? as is fairly obvious from a glance at the clues (with a nudge from the title), eight across clues are written in the form of a rhyming couplet:

  • {This is the sound of things striking the ground} CLATTER.
  • {They really know how to travel in snow} REINDEER.
  • {Part with a shoe on Seattle Slew} HOOF.
  • {Word for a light that’s especially bright} FLASH.
  • {It is a spread you can put on your bread} JELLY.
  • {Structure with mortar at a property’s border} WALL.
  • {Part that may grow on Pinocchio} NOSE.
  • {It’s what you get when the sun has set} NIGHT.

eight is rather a lot of theme answers for a slightly undersized (13×13) grid, but several of them are quite short. anyway, the next big aha is that these are not just any eight random words—REINDEER in particular stands out as holiday-related, which seems relevant given the instruction set. in fact, all eight of these words are line-ending words in the poem a visit from st. nicholas by clement clarke moore, a.k.a. “twas the night before christmas”. a further nudge is that the eight theme clues are written not just as rhyming couplets, but in the same meter as the poem, i.e. anapestic tetrameter.

what are we to do with this information? for each theme word, we need the corresponding rhyming word from the poem, like so:

  • When out on the lawn there arose such a CLATTER, / I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
  • When what to my wondering eyes did appear, / But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny REINDEER,
  • And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof / The prancing and pawing of each little HOOF. it’s unclear to me whether these words rhymed in the 19th-century american english spoken by moore, but they certainly do not rhyme the way i say them. i know there are some places in the country (maybe southeastern pennsylvania?) where people pronounce “roof” with a vowel sound closer to a schwa than a long u, and maybe there are even places where people pronounce “hoof” with a long u.
  • Away to the window I flew like a FLASH, / Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash. i guess the roast sash for christmas eve dinner didn’t go down right, but puking out the window still seems pretty uncouth.
  • He had a broad face and a little round belly / That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of JELLY.
  • “To the top of the porch! to the top of the WALL! / Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
  • And laying his finger aside of his NOSE, / And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
  • But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight— / “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good NIGHT!” a fitting way to end it, with the final lines of the poem.

reading off the first letters of these eight rhyming words gives MARS BARS, yet another rhyming phrase. i’ve never gotten a mars bar in my christmas stocking, but i certainly have gotten other types of chocolate bars.

this feels much easier to me than last week’s puzzle, which required a combination-of-two-ideas step i don’t know that i would have ever thought of (as there was nothing in the puzzle that suggested it, i think), and indeed there are over 400 correct answers on the leaderboard compared with about a third that many last week. so a slightly wonky difficulty-o-meter again this month, but perhaps a gentler meta to end the year was matt’s christmas present to all of us.

on its own merits, this puzzle was really outstanding. every little design choice was elegant and smoothly executed, and there was a nice succession of aha moments. in particular, the eight theme clues were each little works of art in their own right. so the meta gets a big thumbs-up from me.

speaking of great metas, if you haven’t done evan birnholz’s “5×5” puzzle from the washington post this past sunday, you simply must check it out. it’s an absolute tour de force. you can get the PDF here, or the .puz here (but at least take a look at the PDF if you’re solving the .puz), and when you’re done, you can read jim quinlan’s review of it here. it’s simply magnificent.

that’s all from me this year. thanks for all the puzzles, matt, and here’s to a great 2021!

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11 Responses to MGWCC #656

  1. Hey, thanks for the compliments, Joon! That was a very nice surprise.

    And I agree that Matt’s Christmas meta was lovely — a great way to end the 2020 MGWCC. I can’t wait to see what he cooks up in 2021.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Thanks, Joon — 424 correct entries last week.

      Thanks also for blogging these; reading your take is a highlight of my week.

      +1 on the praise for Evan’s WaPo metas in general and on last week’s in particular. I think I said “There can’t possibly be more, can there?” three different times.

  2. Stuart says:

    I think the higher-than-expected solve rate for this was because you can do an internet search of the theme words (clatter, reindeer, hoof,et al.) and up pops the poem. From there it is trivial to get the answer. This is unfortunate, as it is difficult to resist but is hardly a satisfying way to crack a meta. I think of it as more of a hack and not really a solo-solve.

    • Chad Simms says:

      Happy holidays to you too, Mr. Scrooge!

    • davidb says:

      I agree, and that’s how I ended up solving it. But, on the other hand, I don’t think that familiarity with a particular poem (or any singular work of art), especially a denominational one, should be required for solving a meta. For me, as someone who has never really celebrated Christmas, google was my only hope.

  3. Garrett says:

    Yes, the clues were really well done.

  4. oldjudge says:

    For some reason, as soon as I saw the fill Clatter I thought of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. From there on I was looking for words from the poem. There were also two words in the down fills from the poem, one of which kinda had a rhyme, but that did not take from my enjoyment of the puzzle.
    Thanks to Joon for pointing out Evan’s meta. I did that today and really, really enjoyed it.

  5. Math Teacher Dave says:

    It should also be noted that the theme entries were not simply rhyming couplets; they also used poetic meter to suggest the theme! The three-syllable dactyls Matt used (THIS is the SOUND of things STRIking the GROUND) feel a lot like the three-syllable anapests (Happy CHRISTmas to ALL and to ALL a good NIGHT) in the original poem.

  6. jefe says:

    I did see that Neville was first on the solve list, which made me happy as this was a simpler version of his old puzzle that he’d sent out last week. He pre-called the WSJ meta too!

  7. sharkicicles says:

    Roof/hoof rhymes to me. Get/set on the other hand doesn’t, but I had figured it out it was the eighth theme clue by the pattern. (To me get is pronounced more like git.)

  8. Bill2RD says:

    The entry “clatter” also led me to the poem. It seemed like an unusual answer to an unusual clue.

    Thanks also for the link to the “5 x 5” puzzle. It was a masterpiece. It took a lot of grunt work, but it was well worth the effort. I am almost ashamed to say that I didn’t have to look up the Spice Girls’ names – my daughter was a fan of theirs back in the 90’s.

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