Sunday, December 24, 2023

LAT tk (Gareth)  


NYT 6:23 (Matt) 


USA Today 4:08 (Darby)  


Universal (Sunday) 17:52 (Jim) 


Universal 3:03 (norah) 


WaPo 5:33 (Matt) 


Drew Schmenner’s New York Times crossword, “Wrap Stars” — Nate’s write-up

Drew Schmenner’s New York Times crossword solution, “Wrap Stars,” 12/24/2023

Matt filling in for Nate today. Five rebus squares dot the grid, each containing “ELF.” A seasonally-appropriate revealer highlights that these squares are SANTAS LITTLE HELPERS.

My favorite element of this theme is how colorful the entries containing rebus squares are. We have CRU(EL F)ATE crossing SHAMELESS S(ELF) PROMOTER — a great entry that only works in a Sunday-sized grid — CARAM(EL F)LAN, ANG(EL F)OOD CAKE, PERSONN(EL F)ILE, and OFF THE SH(ELF), among a few others. Rebus themes allow a constructor to get longer, interesting entries into a grid, and Drew took advantage of the opportunity here.


  • 9a [XXX] CHIS. As in the Greek letter “chi”, which looks similar to an ‘X’ in our alphabet. Probably not new to many Fiend readers, but I do think it’s on the tougher side for the Times — I believe Sam Ezersky’s (hard) puzzle at last year’s ACPT had the same clue.
  • 47a [“Ithaca is ___” (punny slogan)] GORGES. Often seen as white text on a kelly green t-shirt, I would say. Punny slogans around Finger Lakes viticulture are less common.
  • 92a [Kim’s ex, in tabloids] KANYE. I was not aware Kim Kardashian and Kanye West had split. Can always rely on the New York Times Crossword to keep me current.
  • 97a [Actress Wen of “The Mandalorian”] MING-NA. Nice to have a reference a bit more current than The Joy Luck Club, or ER, as great as both are.
  • 11d [Hereditary] INBRED. It took me every crossing to feel comfortable here, so strong is the negative connotation around INBRED in my brain.
  • 42d [Article of clothing that might be decorated with candy canes] LOUD TIE. I laughed at this entry. It’s been some time since I’ve worn a garish tie, and it seems the opportunities are fading. Fortunately socks are still common.
  • 43d [Full of sex or profanity, maybe] RRATED. I didn’t have this issue today, but isn’t is a pain when you have to wait to figure out whether the entry is R RATED or RATED R?

Universal Themeless Sunday 65 by Rafael Musa, norah’s review; 3:03

THEME: none!

Favorite entries:

univ 12-22-2023

univ 12-22-2023

  • WHATHAVEYOUDONE 38A [“See the mess we have to clean up now?!”].
  • IFITCOMESTOTHAT 7D [“… in case I absolutely must”]
  • EXTRALIFE 14A [Effect of a green mushroom, in Mario games]
  • THAIICEDTEA 10D [Orange beverage sweetened with condensed milk]
  • WHOAREYOU 60A [Ruder alternative to “Have we met?”]


Another one that felt blazing fast, again speaking to Rafa’s skill in choosing clean fill while including interesting entries and smooth cluing. Another hallmark is the breadth of cultural references – we have IAN, BAE, CLIPIN, TET, OCEANO, SLOVENIA, THAIICEDTEA, REAL, DOSA, and LEE. All good stuff thoughtfully clued. I’m finding more and more that I am apparently in the minority regarding short dupes, but by the third YOU in this grid I was starting to wonder if there was an intentional mini-theme. Hope everyone has a nice holiday weekend!

Thanks Rafa and the Universal team!

Elizabeth C. Gorski’s Washington Post crossword, “Arctic Circle” — Matt’s write-up

Elizabeth Gorski’s Washington Post crossword solution, ‘Arctic Circle’, 12/24/2023

Elizabeth Gorski brings us a winter weather theme this week: eight rebus squares each contain “SNOW” to complete a pair of crossing entries. If you’re familiar with Elizabeth’s portfolio, you won’t be surprised to see that the rebus squares are symmetrical and arranged in a circle.

A central revealer gives a nod to the rebus squares, but falls somewhat flat for me: [Restricted areas on a parade route … or an alternate puzzle title] FROZEN ZONES. I haven’t heard this phrase in any context, parades or otherwise, and feel that the title, “Artic Circle,” is a much clearer indicator of the theme. Another revealer serves a more direct purpose at 94-Down: [Yuletide projectile … or the puzzle theme suggested by the placement of eight special squares] (SNOW) BALL.

The theme did help with a number of entries I’d otherwise raise more of an eyebrow at: Singer Phoebe and journalist Katie SNOW, novelist CP SNOW and SNOW SCULPTURE, for which I initially had “ICE” before I realized every rebus was the same, and former White House press secretary Tony SNOW. [“The Yankee Doodle Boy” songwriter”] George COHAN and HAILE Selassie crossing [Greek letter] CHI may be a tripping point for some without a theme square to help out. Crossings aside, PISTILS, ANILS, GIOTTOS, dare I even say TAM O (Shanter) and DENGUE, lend an air to the puzzle that I think will favor longtime solvers. But! It’s eight rebus squares arranged symmetrically. I can’t argue with that much. I do wonder how much more flexible the fill might have been if SNOW BALL were the only revealer. Perhaps everyone else recognizes FROZEN ZONES and disagrees!

Double duty for me today, so light on the notes. Have a wonderful Sunday!

Jeff Chen’s Universal Sunday crossword, “Novel Characters”—Jim’s review

Theme answers are familiar words and phrases whose letters are used only once within each entry. The revealer is NO TWO ARE ALIKE (114a, [Description of snowflakes … and the letters within each of the answers to the starred clues]). Each entry is also clued with respect to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Universal Sunday crossword solution · “Novel Characters” · Jeff Chen · 12.24.23

  • 22a. [*Tiny Tim, to Bob Cratchit] YOUNGEST CHILD.
  • 26a. [*Like the children shown by the Ghost of Christmas Present] MALNOURISHED.
  • 61a. [*Getting a boss like Fezziwig vs. one like Scrooge, e.g.] LUCK OF THE DRAW.
  • 73a. [*The ghost of Jacob Marley, e.g.] SHADOWY FIGURE.
  • 106a. [*Many a sound from Scrooge at the end of “A Christmas Carol”] CRY OF DELIGHT.
  • 30d. [*Bob Cratchit, to Tiny Tim] LOVING FATHER.
  • 39d. [*Backdrop for when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears] BLACK OF NIGHT.

Pretty nifty theme, once I stopped and thought about it. Given the lengths of these entries, these are some impressive finds. I wonder if there was some computing power used to locate them. Regardless, it’s a very nice, meaty set.

But that said, I’m a fan of the Dickens tale and wanted the revealer to be related to it. I’ve listened to three different audiobook versions of the story (including last night), and I believe I prefer the version read by Tom Baker (the 4th Doctor Who), although Patrick Stewart and Tim Curry do excellent readings as well. I’ve even done my kid up as Tiny Tim when she broke her ankle and had to go to school dressed as a literary character for World Book Day. A stroke of genius that was, I thought.

So yes, throughout the grid, I was anticipating/hoping for a Christmas-Carol-related theme revealer. As it turns out, the entire collection of A Christmas Carol clues have nothing to do with the theme, and this puzzle could run at any time of year with standard “straight” clues. So I was a bit disappointed by the revealer in that respect.

But as I said, it’s still a nifty theme with impressive entries. It’s just that I was particularly susceptible to the distractions as presented in the clues. Oh, and before I leave the topic of the theme, I have to say what a nice pairing the clues for YOUNGEST CHILD and LOVING FATHER make. Lovely bit of serendipity there.

Moving on, as you’d expect from Jeff Chen, the fill is interesting and lively, even with so many theme answers. Top entries include DRIFTWOOD, Lori LIGHTFOOT, RATHOLE, ENDNOTES, MACKINAC, HITMAKER, LUNETTE, and EYE DOCS.

There were a couple of sections that were unusually difficult. I’d never heard of SKID PADS [Track regions that test cornering], and with it crossing proper name ARTAUD [French dramatist Antonin], I was at a loss. I went with SKID PASS which seemed reasonable enough to me. ARTAUD also crosses MACKINAC, AGORA, and HTTP…not the easiest section for a new solver, especially with some opaque cluing therein.

The other crossing that got me was SOMA [3x3x3 puzzle cube] / CAKE [“Nailed It!” disaster] at the A. Never heard of the puzzle and never watched that show. All I know is it’s a baking show, but didn’t know the premise behind it is to see how badly the bakers do. Why a CAKE would be clued as a disaster threw me, until I decided there could be no other answer.

Other tough entries: OEO, ODIC, SIVA, OEUVRES, ERI, ANC.

Clues were chewier than usual, I felt. Here are a few I noted:

  • 52a. [___ of Strength (Festivus tradition)]. FEATS. Yesterday was Festivus! I hope everyone enjoyed airing out their grievances. I don’t think frankincense is a part of the holiday tradition, but I’m pretty sure Frank incensed is.

  • 66a. [Some WBA ends]. KOS. I read this as “WNBA” and couldn’t figure out why they were knocking each other out.
  • 72a. [Cuup offering]. BRA. Me, just now: “Why do they spell it with two…Ooooh!”
  • 58d. [Bird of old Celtic lore]. LARRY. I had to laugh at this one as I was fooled completely. To the point where I was wondering if “LARRY” was a word used in the Celtic language.
  • 85d. [Ivan Drago’s country]. USSR. I believe this is a Rocky reference. Yup. Rocky IV.

Good puzzle, but challenging in some areas. Also, I in particular was hoping for a revealer that related to the theme clues. YMMV. Four stars.

Taylor Johnson’s USA Today crossword, “Downplay” — Darby’s write-up

Editor: Amanda Rafkin

Theme: The last word of each theme answer is a theatrical production, and all themers are Down answers.

Theme Answers

Taylor Johnson's USA Today crossword, “Downplay” solution for 12/24/2023

Taylor Johnson’s USA Today crossword, “Downplay” solution for 12/24/2023

  • 3d [Going hard at the gym] WORKING UP A SWEAT
  • 7d [They surround many tennis courts] CHAIN-LINK FENCES
  • 11d [“Is that verifiable?”] WHERE’S YOUR PROOF?

Watching football while solving this puzzle was perhaps not the best idea since I could not figure out what type of play each theme answer was referencing, so thanks to Sally Hoelscher’s blog for helping to clarify this for me. Each theme answer took me a second to get, though I filled in WORKING right away for WORKING UP A SWEAT. WHERE came through the crosses, as did PROOF, and so it was easy to figure out from there. With CHAIN-LINK FENCES, I had almost no idea, but once I saw the CH made by MCED and OH SO, I was pretty good to go. I also want to note that each of these themers spanned the height of the grid, which is pretty fun.

If not for the mention of “down”in the title, I would’ve thought that 17a [Building’s emergency exist with ladders] FIRE ESCAPE and 64a [“Great work on this!”] NICELY DONE were theme answers since they’re each 10s. It’s really impressive to me that there were these two ten-letter answers in addition to the three fifteens. I also liked some of the sevens, like 24a [“All good, no worries”] IT’S FINE and 48a [Transport by helicopter”] AIRLIFT. Other favourite fill included 22a [Audibly enjoys some ramen] SLURPS (can I have ramen for Christmas dinner?) and 52d [“The Green Knight” actor Dev] PATEL.

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6 Responses to Sunday, December 24, 2023

  1. JohnH says:

    So, Santa’s workshop meets mother’s little helpers. NYT perfectly ok, but hard to muster much enthusiasm. Five theme letters in a big puzzle, two symmetrically placed, the others, well, less so. One very long entry the revealer, the other, unless I’m missing something major, irrelevant. But oh, well. Have a happy Rolling Stones holiday.

    I wouldn’t have said that CHI is all that obscure, even if I hadn’t seen it by now in hundreds, maybe thousands of puzzles. Or even if I hadn’t had to learn the Greek alphabet for high-school physics, hadn’t heard of the chi-square test, and weren’t approaching Xmas. Maybe “bactrian”? Some might find that puzzling even after getting the answer. (Also a few proper names, but fair enough crossings.)

    • John+F.+Ervin says:

      I, otoh, became enthused when I discovered the little elves were not symmetrically placed but instead were hiding waiting to be revealed. Also I thought “chi” and “bactrian” were fairly common.

  2. Bryan says:

    NYT: I enjoyed this one as a Christmas Eve puzzle and to distract myself from the rest of my family watching “Home Alone 2” last night and wanting something else to occupy my time, such as this puzzle instead of that movie. 34a is where I finally figured out the rebus after questioning (for longer than I would like to admit) whether “feeor” was a legitimate word meaning: sympathize with.

  3. Philip says:

    Fun fact: I saw the phrase “Ithaca is gorges” for the first time just last night.(Reading an article about Moosewood Restaurant.)

  4. DougC says:

    NYT: I really enjoyed this breezy, light-hearted puzzle on a holiday Sunday morning. May you find your (closed-toe) Christmas stockings filled with treats, trinkets and joy!

  5. Sean Featherstone says:

    This Universal Crossword was a repeat of a week or two ago, I’ve done this one …

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