Eve of Construction

Holidays include one birthday you might not know about

Published December 24, 2023

Be careful out there! On December 24 many years ago, Grandma got run over by a reindeer. With the dangers outside, I’ve rounded up some holiday clues for you to solve while you stay safely indoors. Enjoy!

Clues you can use

Friday, Dec. 22 (Atlas Obscura, constructed by Stella Zawistowski)

Italian slope with a 2,000-foot Christmas tree made of lights = MOUNT INGINO

At more than 2,100 feet, in fact, the Christmas tree in Mount Ingino was Guinness-certified as the world’s tallest in 1991. A small mountain in the Apennines, you can find it outside Gubbio, in Umbria, with the tree-topping star comprising 200 white lights at the Basilica of the Patron Sant’Ubaldo. In recent years, a local celebrity has usually turned on the Christmas lights each Dec. 7, including Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, and Pope Francis in 2014 – as it happens, one of the miracles performed by the current pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, was taming the Wolf of Gubbio. I can only hope that Apennine critters like the chamois or Marsican brown bears don’t get too distracted by the lights.

Tuesday, Dec. 19 (Vox, constructed by Juliana Tringali Golden)

Sugar Plum Fairy headpiece = TIARA

In a recent interview, New York City Ballet principal dancer Unity Phelan noted, “It’s actually really hard work and blood, sweat, and tears every day — but what you see on stage is a beautiful pink princess in a tiara.” The Sugar Plum Fairy is one of the most famous ballet roles, originated by Antonietta Dell’Era in Tchaikovsky’s original 1892 production. Osage ballerina Maria Tallchief performed it in a 1954 production of “The Nutcracker,” directed by then-husband George Balanchine. That has become the definitive stage version of the ballet, and Tallchief’s performance helped popularize the ballet in America. By the way, did you know that sugar plums don’t actually contain plums?

Maria Tallchief as the Sugar Plum Fairy – Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. (1954)

Friday, Dec. 22 (The Atlantic, constructed by Paolo Pasco)

Artist whose Christmas song beat “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to No. 1 on the Billboard charts this month = BRENDA LEE

Giddy up, jingle horse! It took Mariah Carey’s “All I Want” a quarter-century to hit Billboard #1, but it took 65 years for Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”! A child music star, Lee was just 13 when she recorded the 1958 Christmas classic. After that she had two #1 hits, “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to Be Wanted,” both in 1960. In 2009, Lee received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and she was also the first woman to be inducted into both the Country and Rock and Roll halls of fame. After a full life, it’s nice to see some recognition for the signature holiday hit by the woman Taylor Swift once described as “the singer who mastered the sound of heartbreak.”

Monday, Dec. 18 (USA Today, constructed by Emma Lawson)

Pulk or toboggan = SLED

A pulk is a traditional sled created by the Sámi people of Finland, which can be pulled by a dog, a skier, or even a reindeer. While the sled can still be used for going downhill fast, the pulk is a very useful tool for pulling gear over the snow, and the U.S. Army has adopted the term for any sled pulled over ice.

Sami man with reindeer and pulk – public domain

And of course a toboggan is a sled, but here in the South, it’s also a hat. I don’t get much use out of mine in the mild winters of South Carolina, but I’ll wear it in Cambridge, Mass. in a few weeks, for the MIT Mystery Hunt!

Unwrapping some boxes

First up, happy anniversary to the crossword! The first crossword was published Dec. 21, 1913 in the New York World, written by Liverpudlian Arthur Wynne. I haven’t really seen much discourse this week about the 110th anniversary, but there was much celebration of the centennial a decade ago.

From the fair folks at Vanity Fair, an article dropped Tuesday about the New York Times Games team and its many projects. Side note: if you are an American who loves NYT’s Connections game, you should check out Only Connect, a British quiz show that I write questions for. It’s fun!

Finally, the eminent constructor Natan Last wrote a very thoughtful piece in the New Yorker, discussing the power of words and how they relate to crossword puzzles. It’s a must-read. Also, the piece was written as part of the New Yorker’s annual Cartoons & Puzzles Issue, so if you are a print subscriber, enjoy that over your holiday break!

I hope you, your family, and your friends have a merry Christmas and a great holiday season. And stay warm!

Chris King is a longtime crossword commentator, and the author of five published puzzle books. His column appears on Questionist every Sunday.