Cryptic Crossword Primer for Christmas

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Cryptic crosswords are one of those things you either love or hate, that you either understand or can’t stand. Part of the problem is that there is a huge set of rules for solving them which you are simply supposed to know. If you don’t know the rules, you’ve got no chance.

This post is a Chritmas present to readers. It includes a short introduction on how to solve cryptic crosswords and a special Christmas themed crossword to try your hand at. It is not like some of the devious cryptic crosswords in the broadsheets. Most of the clues should be fairly easy and fun.

You can click on the image to the right to view the crossword at full size, and here is a PDF version to download and print. Answers are at the end of this post but try it for yourself first!

Puzzles are a great activity for families stuck together for extended periods trying to think up topics of conversation! So print a few of the crosswords off and work together over the holiday period to find the answers.

This crossword and the primer below were written by myself and my partner in crime at Please take a look at her art portfolio.

Introduction to cryptic crosswords

A cryptic crossword clue usually contains at least two different parts, each pointing to the answer in different ways.

Almost all cryptic clues contain a definition for the answer. This could be a direct definition such as a straight synonym, or it could be more ambiguous such as a description of the answer or a general category that the answer falls into.

Finding where the definition part of the clue starts and finishes is part of the challenge. A well written clue will hide the definition in plain sight, though it is often at the start or the end of the clue.

The cryptic part of the clue is called the “subsidiary indication”. This also points you to the answer but it does so using devious wordplay. It may be necessary to break words in the subsidiary indication down into individual letters, or to replace some words with synonyms, to recognise puns or to perform something other operation on the words to spell out the answer.

For most cryptic crossword clue, you know you’ve cracked it once you’ve separated out the definition from the subsidiary indication and both of them give them same answer.

Types of subsidiary indication

There are a huge range of different types of cryptic clue, and a huge number of ways to obfuscate the answer. Entire books have been written on the topic. This section goes over the more common subsidiary indications and how to spot them.


In an anagram clue, the subsidiary indication contains the letters of the answer and some sort of hint or indication that the letters needs rearranging or are not in the right order as written. A correct rearrangement gives the solution.

There are literally thousands of possible “anagram indicators”. Any word or phrase that connotes confusion, arrangement, deviousness or change can serve. The anagram letters may be taken from one or several words, or from parts of words, or from synonyms and abbreviations of words.

Example: Unusually remote celestial body (6)

If this were a straight clue, the answer might be a star or something that is millions of light-years away. However, this is a cryptic clue so it isn’t that obvious.

This cryptic clue must be broken into two parts. First comes the subsidiary indication, “unusually remote”. “Unusually” is an anagram indicator saying that the letters of “remote” should be rerranged out of their usual order. Next comes the definition: “celestial body”.

The answer is METEOR, an anagram of “remote”.

Double Definition

In a double definition clue, the subsidiary indication is a second definition of the same answer.

Example: Clear as a document (8)

The answer is something that means both “clear” and “document”. The answer is MANIFEST.

Hidden Word

In a hidden word clue, the subsidiary definition contains the full answer hidden within the clue. The answer might be split across two or more words such as the last few letters of one word and the first few letters of the next. Alternatively, a short answer may be contained within a single longer word.

A hidden word indicator may be a word or phrase such as hides, holds, reveals, or anything that suggests that something can be made up from the clue words.

Sometimes the answer is hidden backwards amongst the letters, and there will be something in the subsidiary indication suggesting looking at the clue in reverse.

Example: More lice are found to contain what remains (5)

The hidden word indicator is the phrase “are found to contain”, referring to the words “more lice”. The definition is “remains”.

The answer is RELIC which can be made up from the last two letters of “more” and the first three letters of “lice”.


A charade clue is similar to a hidden word clue, but requiring additional wordplay. Two or more words or letters can be derived from the clue and, when these are put together, they form the solution.

Example: To tantalise the left is a plant (6)

One definition of “to tantalise” is “tease” while a common abbreviation for “the left” is the letter “L”. Putting these together gives the answer TEASEL, which is a type of plant.

Sounds like

In a sounds like clue, the subsidiary indication tells you about a word or phrase that sounds the same as the answer. The subsidiary indication usually contains a hint that it is a sounds like clue.

Sounds like indicators might be words and phrases like say, it’s said, reportedly, one hears, or anything suggesting the clue should be read aloud.

The clue may include a direct homonym for the answer, or it may be necessary to perform some wordplay first.

Example: By the sound of it, I’ll row (5)

The phrase “by the sound of it” is a sounds like indicator. The word “I’ll” is a homonym for the answer and the word “row” is the definition. The answer is AISLE.

Breaking the rules

Rules are meant to be broken and that is especially true in cryptic crosswords. If a rule is broken or the clue contains a particularly dreadful pun, it might be phrased as a question to let you know something isn’t as expected.

Then again, clue setters sometimes just love messing with you.

Example: Gegs (9,4)

The answer is SCRAMBLED EGGS. The clue here is itself the answer.

Answers to Christmas grid

Spoilers follow, of course! The answers to our Christmas puzzle at the start of this post, and some brief explanations, are as follows:

3. Christmas Day (Definition: Noel. Anagram [distress] of “sad, itchy arms”)
7. List (Definition: Letter to Father Christmas. Hidden inside [results in] “blisters”)
9. Star (Definition: Celebrity. “Rats” spelt backwards)
11. Advent (Definition: Coming. Anagram of “VAT end”)
13. Coal (Definition: Reward for naughty behaviour. Anagram of first four letters [starter] of “alcoholic”)
16. Elf (Definition: Present maker. First three letters [tail removed] of “flea”, reversed)
18. Present (Definition: Tense. Hidden inside [a little] “wrap resentment”)
19. Ho Ho Ho (Double definition: “Three prostitutes” and “laughing”)
20. Eve (Double definition: “First lady” and “last night” [if it’s Christmas Day!])
21. Yule Log (Definition: “Intended cremation target”. Anagram [upsets] of “eulogy” plus “L” [learner])
22. Queen’s Speech (Definition: Old lady talks. Anagram [madly] of “quenches, pees”)
24. Bethlehem (Definition: City. Charade of “Beth” [girl], “le” [Leicester]. and “hem” [border])
29. Pear Tree (Definition: One bird roost. Charade of “pear” [sounds like “pair” from “two”] and “tree” [most of the letters of “three”])
30. New Year (Definition: Whole clue. Anagram [dubious] of “were any”)
31. Mince Pie (Definition: Tasty treat. Sounds like [I hear] “Mint spy” from “new spy”]
33. Cracker (Double definition: “Stunning” and “cheese companion”)
34. Grotto (Definition: Cave. First letter of “great” plus “risotto” without the “is”)

1. Troll (Definition: Whole thing. A troll can be found under bridges and “to troll” is “to sing”)
2. Pine (Double definition: “Long for” and “evergreen”)
4. Santa (Definition: Eats mince pies. Charade of “ant” [insect] inside the letter S and A [South Africa initially]
5. Mistletoe (Definition: plant. Anagram [parasitic] of “Tom’s elite”)
8. Toy (Definition: Whole thing. First letter of each word)
10. Angel (Definition: Saint. First four letter [endless] of “anger” plus “L” [left])
12. Turkey (Definition: Meat. A bad pun on the sound a turkey makes)
14. In Excelsis (Definition: Highest degree. Charade of “in” and “celsius” [former temperature scale] with “U” [you])
15. December (Definition: This month [if it’s Christmas Day!]. Charade of “Dec” [tenth] and “ember” [cinder])
17. Joseph (Definition: Adoptive father. Hidden in “Jose, Philadelphia”)
23. Reeking (Definition: very smelly. Hidden in [some of] “three kings”)
26. Manger (Double definition: “Feed box” and “to eat” in French)
28. Green (Definition: Eco. Anagram of “energy” with no “Y” [why])
32. Icy (Definition: I slip. Sounds like [I hear] “I see”)

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  • Janet Martin

    I have a small group of Cryptic Crossworders (in New Zealand) and I have been looking for something different for our Christmas meeting. I came across your Christmas Cryptic Crossword which would be perfect. However I can’t find the solutions – could you please advise where I can find them. The crossword is dated 1 December 2016.

  • Angela Bell

    Hello Geoff

    Thanks for this. Ideal for my U3A crossword group here in Suffolk for our final meeting of 2021 which will have a Xmas theme.


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