Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Dec. 25 crossword, “Santa’s Workshop”

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On Nov. 7, friends-of-the-show Grace Topinka and Chelsea Rowan were discussing, on their podcast “Two Girls One Crossword,” some puzzles they had solved around Halloween and they brought up my “Haunted House” meta suite from 2021. Grace had mentioned that there was no requirement that I write one every year, but nonetheless she hoped she would have another chance to solve a multi-puzzle suite of that type. That’s about when I got to work planning “Santa’s Workshop.” Christmas would fall on a Sunday this year, as Halloween did last year, so it felt like the right time for a special variety puzzle.

A few weeks later, on Nov. 30, I was about 70 percent finished with the suite when I got a phone call from my editor Mitch Rubin. He gave me the stunning news that the Dec. 25 issue of The Washington Post Magazine would be the final one. I had no idea how to proceed on this puzzle, or any puzzle for that matter, after hearing that. For a few hours I even considered shelving “Santa’s Workshop” until next year for a couple of reasons. I wasn’t able to get a two-page spread in The Magazine like I’d originally hoped, which meant I’d have to condense an entire suite of puzzles onto one page, and that was tough enough. Just as importantly, I didn’t know if my copy editor would still be checking it.

Ultimately, I decided to finish the suite and submit it now. There would never be another final issue of The Washington Post Magazine, so this was the time to do it.

If you haven’t gotten a chance to solve “Santa’s Workshop” yet, you can find it here.


The instructions at the top read:

The elves at the North Pole have lost several letters written to Santa. Your job is to help them find these missing letters so they can finish their work for the holidays. The first three puzzles will each yield a six- or seven-letter secret gift, and this will come in handy for the final puzzle.

So, just like with “The Haunted House,” you’ll need to complete each puzzle and find the secret meta answers for the first three puzzles. The difference with “Santa’s Workshop” is that none of the puzzles are standard crosswords. These are variety puzzles, several of which you can find in such outlets as the Wall Street Journal and Games World of Puzzles, but the ones in this suite have their own twist.

Marching Bands is a type of variety puzzle invented by Mike Shenk, editor of the Wall Street Journal crossword. The puzzle is divided into Rows and Bands, with two answers in each Row placed side by side, while the Bands answers are entered one after another, starting in a lettered square (A, B, C, or D), winding around the Band, clockwise, and ending at the square right below the lettered square. You can find another example of a Marching Bands that Mike wrote for the WSJ here.

A common strategy in solving a Marching Bands is to start with easy Rows clues and use them to reason out where to enter the Bands answers. The second clue of Row 3 is [Reduce, ___, Recycle], a fairly basic clue for REUSE, and that leaves you with a four-letter answer that precedes it with the clue [Border]. A good guess for that is EDGE. Entering those two answers in Row 3 will show you the answer to the first clue of Band C [Actor Richard] is GERE.

You have to be careful in this Marching Bands, though. The second clue of Band C is [Small issue to “pick”] which should be NIT, but the letters from EDGE and REUSE in Row 3 give you GERE and then a word somehow beginning with U in Band C. Something appears to be wrong.

This is where the introductory note to the suite might give you an aha moment. You know how your task is to find the missing letters that the elves lost? You’ll find several of them in this puzzle. The Rows answers are all normal, but seven letters in the Bands must be ignored for their clues to make sense.

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  • Band A, 2nd clue: [Go through a novel] is READ, skipping over a T, which makes the answer look like TREAD.
  • Band A, 6th clue: [Actress Blanchett] is CATE, stopping before an R, which makes the apparent answer CATER.
  • Band C, 2nd clue: [Small issue to “pick”] is NIT, skipping over a U, which makes the apparent answer UNIT.
  • Band C, 4th clue: [Former amateur] is PRO, stopping before an M, which makes the apparent answer PROM.
  • Band B, 2nd clue: [Hive insect] is BEE, stopping before a P, which makes the apparent answer BEEP.
  • Band B, 3rd clue: [Fit for a king or queen] is REGAL, stopping before an E, which makes the apparent answer REGALE.
  • Band A, 4th clue: [Tug of war need] is ROPE, skipping over a T, which makes the apparent answer TROPE.

The skipped letters from the Bands, from top to bottom, spell out TRUMPET. That’s a gift you might expect if you’re involved in marching bands, and it’s the first secret answer.

Checkered Flag is a variety puzzle form that I invented seven years ago, though until now I’d only written two puzzles of this type. One of them appeared on my old Devil Cross website here, and the other was part of a meta suite for the first Indie 500 Crossword Tournament in 2015.

Where normal crosswords feature words that cross at one letter each, the answers in a Checkered Flag cross at two letters each. The answers are entered in a zigzag formation; Rows answers run across and take up two lines of horizontal squares, and Columns answers run down and take up two lines of vertical squares. (Side note: Back in 2015, I’d used the clue headings Zigs and Zags since that felt like a whimsical way of describing the answers, but I decided to simplify things this time around with Rows and Columns instead.)

Just like with the Marching Bands puzzle, the Rows and Columns answers should be entered one after the other. In Row 1, the first clue is [Visibly sad (2 wds.)] which is IN TEARS, and the second clue in the same Row is [Living spaces] is HOMES. So you’d enter IN TEARS in the squares (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and HOMES in squares (8, 9, 10, 11, 12) in zigzagging fashion. From there, you can see that the first answer in Column 1 has the clue [Member of a 16th-century Peruvian empire] starts with IN-, which can allow you to enter INCA in squares (1, 2, 13, 14) zigzagging down.

Similarly, as with the Marching Bands puzzle, there are some trick letters (all in the Columns) that are missing:

  • Column 2, clue 1: [Conclusions] is ENDS, ignoring a starting T, so it appears in the grid as TENDS.
  • Column 5, clue 1: [___-pedi] is MANI, ignoring a starting O, so it appears in the grid as OMANI.
  • Column 1, clue 2: [Ahead of schedule] is EARLY, ignoring a starting Y, so it appears in the grid as YEARLY.
  • Column 2, clue 2: [Poetic tributes] is ODES, ignoring a starting C, so it appears in the grid as CODES.
  • Column 3, clue 3: [Martial arts star Bruce] is LEE, ignoring a starting A, so it appears in the grid as ALEE.
  • Column 5, clue 2: [Spanish word for “hand”] is MANO, ignoring an ending R, so it appears in the grid as MANOR.

These missing letters in top-to-bottom order spell out the second secret gift, TOY CAR. While I’m not a NASCAR or Formula One fan, I imagine many fans of both played with toy cars when they were kids.

It’s worth a note here that I’m very pleased that Amuse Labs could help me develop a convenient online solving option for the Checkered Flag.

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The third puzzle in the suite is another variety crossword invented by Mike Shenk: a Labyrinth puzzle. Here, the answers proceed in Rows and along winding Paths. Labyrinth puzzles tend to start in the upper-left corner and wind all the way around, ending in the space below that upper-left square, but I decided to begin at square 1 in that upper-left corner and end in the lower-right corner at square 99. Once again, you can find an example of a separate Labyrinth puzzle from the Wall Street Journal here if you’d like to try it.

The puzzles in this suite all operate similarly in that you have Rows answers placed side by side and you need to use them to help you figure out where the crossing answers go. It’s no different in the Labyrinth. Row 3, clue 2: [Singer Morissette] is ALANIS, which means the first answer in that row has five letters. With the clue [Tale told at bedtime], that’s a fairly easy clue for STORY. If you can figure out that Row 2, clue 1: [Vibrations in the ground] is TREMORS, that can go a long way to determining the first answer in the Path: [1991 military code name (2 wds.)] is DESERT STORM.

Just like the first two puzzles, you have to watch out for missing letters, and this time they’re all in the Paths:

  • Path clue 2: [Bones in a cage] is RIBS, ignoring a starting C, so it appears in the grid as CRIBS.
  • Path clue 4: [Arrived] is CAME, ignoring an ending O, so it appears in the grid as CAMEO.
  • Path clue 9: [Photo ___ (PR events)] is OPS, ignoring a starting M, so it appears in the grid as MOPS.
  • Path clue 11: [Highest poker card] is ACE, ignoring a starting P, so it appears in the grid as PACE.
  • Path clue 14: [Like adorable animals] is CUTE, ignoring a starting A, so it appears in the grid as ACUTE.
  • Path clue 15: [Chat] is TALK, ignoring a starting S, so it appears in the grid as STALK.
  • Path clue 17: [Odds’ opposite in math] is EVENS, ignoring a starting S, so it appears in the grid as SEVENS.

The missing letters from top to bottom spell COMPASS, a gift that might come in handy if you were lost in a labyrinth or a maze of some kind. (And yes, I know there’s a difference between a labyrinth and a maze — a labyrinth has one continuous path and a maze has multiple branching paths that can lead to dead ends.)

The last puzzle is a type of puzzle that’s normally named Packing Crates, which was invented by Patrick Berry. This time it uses the same idea, but with the holiday-appropriate title “Gift Boxes.” The answers in this variety crossword proceed in Rows and Boxes. Instead of a winding pattern like in a Marching Bands or a Labyrinth, the Box answers are entered left-to-right, top-to-bottom in rectangular- and square-shaped boxes.

If you solved this puzzle in print, the challenging element is that you have to determine where each Box goes using limited information. The Box clues are ordered alphabetically by answer and the answer lengths are given, but otherwise you have to use the Rows answers to help you figure out the exact location of each Box. If you solved this puzzle online, a part of the challenge was removed: It shows you the positions of the different Boxes from the start, although you don’t know exactly which Box answer goes where. In any event, Gift Boxes can still be solved using a synergy of the Rows answers, logic, patience and time.

It also comes with some more detailed instructions that are relevant to the overall meta answer to the suite:

When the puzzle is complete, eight unboxed letters will give you a hint to finding the three secret gifts in this grid. The squares of each of these gifts will tell you where you can find Santa’s four-word message in the first three puzzles.

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So, if you’ve filled in the grid correctly, it should look like this:

You’ll notice that eight unboxed (and unclued) letters spell out the word DIAGONAL. This is a hint to finding the three secret gifts in this puzzle Can you spot TRUMPET, TOY CAR and COMPASS hiding in the grid diagonally? They’re right here:

We’re supposed to use these hidden diagonal words to find Santa’s four-word phrase hidden in the first three puzzles, so what do we do with this information?

You’ve probably noticed that every square in this variety suite has its own number — this is an unusual feature even for the variety puzzles that you see here. The numbers in the squares of the diagonal TRUMPET, TOY CAR and COMPASS are the keys to finding the overall meta answer. Look at the same numbers for each of these answers in their respective puzzles:

  • The diagonal TRUMPET in the final puzzle has the numbers (4, 15, 26, 37, 48, 59, 70). Take the squares with the same numbers in Puzzle 1: Marching Bands.
  • The diagonal TOY CAR in the final puzzle has the numbers (1, 12, 23, 34, 45, 56). Take the squares with the same numbers in Puzzle 2: Checkered Flag.
  • The diagonal COMPASS in the final puzzle has the numbers (31, 42, 53, 64, 75, 86, 97). Take the squares with the same numbers in Puzzle 3: Labyrinth.

The corresponding squares, from Puzzle 1 through Puzzle 3, spell out Santa’s four-word message to you: IT’S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE.


Before I wrap things up, I have several people to thank for their assistance. I had a big number of test-solvers since one can’t be too careful with a variety meta suite. In alphabetical order: Richard Allen, Patrick Blindauer, Neville Fogarty, Amy Goldstein, Giovanni P., Paolo Pasco, Karen Spencer, and Quiara Vasquez. (Quiara, by the way, is one of the two editors, along with Gavin Byrnes, who will be running the innovative puzzle subscription service Crucinova beginning in January, 2023. Check that out if you like solving some unusual crosswords that you won’t typically see in a newspaper.) Alex Boisvert helped me develop a digital puzzle file for the Checkered Flag crossword, and Srishti Agarwal and the team at Amuse Labs worked hard to adapt the suite for solving on The Post’s website.

There’s one more person I need to acknowledge. Remember how I said that I considered shelving this suite until next year because I didn’t know if my copy editor would be available to check it? That’s Jenny Abella. She has been my copy editor since I started writing puzzles for The Washington Post seven years ago. When the news came that The Post Magazine would be ending, it meant that Jenny was losing her job at The Post. I’ve seldom worked with anyone who has the level of patience and professionalism that Jenny does. She saved me whenever I had typos or factually incorrect clues, and I made plenty of them over the years. She helped make my puzzles better by forcing me to rethink and tighten clues that didn’t quite work. Despite learning the hard news from Nov. 30, she still reviewed and checked “Santa’s Workshop” just like she had every other Post puzzle of mine since 2015.

Even after finishing the suite, the final meta answer IT’S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE seemed like a bittersweet conclusion, almost like it were a message that The Magazine would continue on after all, or that there would be better news for the staff of The Magazine and, in my case, Jenny in particular. My own message of hope is that she and everyone from The Magazine who are looking for work will land somewhere on their feet. Any news organization would be lucky to have them.

Thanks for reading. I’ll see you in 2023 with new puzzles.

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