ZED produced something similar to this Christmas Special in 2017 (‘Christmas Pudding’), where several of the grid entries were ‘coins’ inside ‘puddings’ and a clue was requested for SOW(PIASTRE)ENS. This time the metaphor is presents around the Christmas tree. As explained in the preamble, the thematic clues are wordplay only, and must be found amongst the normal ones. Azed has plenty of scope to interpret ‘present’, not just as a gift or a verb meaning ‘give’, but also as the here and now, and he uses most of the available senses of the word.
He’s previously (as with 2001’s ‘Ship of Fools’) given the special clues a thematic surface, so we might have expected something Christmassy this time. It probably proved too difficult to produce clues that are both decent and thematic, and Azed thankfully chose to produce decent ones, such as the succinct 10 down for ASH in HERE. The clues give competitors a good idea of the standard they should aspire to in their own entries. It’s worth noting that the wordplay should indicate not only the present and the tree, but also the position of the tree inside the present. All Azed’s clues do it unambiguously, though as noted below, the grid entry chosen for the competition needs extra care.
The remaining normal clues are well up to Azed’s regular standard, with a couple of gems, including 20 down’s Idris Elba reference.
1. See preamble POTLATSUGATCH (TSUGA in POTLATCH) This is the one solvers need to work out from scratch and clue themselves. Indicating the position of TSUGA in POTLATCH is complicated by both ends of the join being between an A and a T, which restricts the choice of anagrams and ‘container and contents’ devices that lead to only one possible sequence. It remains to be seen how strictly Azed enforces the requirement of unambiguous postioning.
14. Notices belly having swallowed one ADSTIUM (TI in ADSUM; ads + I in tum) One of two 2-letter trees used by Azed. ‘Adsum’ is Latin for ‘(I am) here’.
16. Dodges game RACKETS (2 mngs.) A tidy little double def. ‘Dodges’ is used as a noun in the wordplay.
19. Typical of artistic school that is found in fuzzy (not cloudy) scenes SIENESE (i.e. in anag. less c) A reference to the medieval Sienese School of painting.
23. Against being hugged by beloved on shortened engagement DEANTIARODATE (ANTIAR in DEODATE; anti in dear + o’ date) Dr Watson was confused at first, having mixed up DEODATE, which is a gift to or from God, with DEODAR, which is a tree.
27. Life in judo get-up GIVITAE (ITA in GIVE; vita in gie) The similarity of the solution and the wordplay elements made the former hard to see.
33. Circus owner maybe introduced to rubber trampolines BERTRAM (hidden) You need to go back a few years to recall Bertram Mills’ Circus, which closed in the 1960s, but until then was the biggest show of its kind in Britain.
36. Eye liners always recalled when taking a Turner? RETINAE (Tina in e’er, rev.) Hopeully no explanation of Tina Turner, who was just getting going in the Sixties, is required. ‘Taking in’ would make more sense in this clue than just ‘taking’, and it may be an accidental omission.
39. Tenser, quaking, about war god with cleaver, new ETRSTYRAXENNE (STYRAX in ÉTRENNE; Tyr axe n in anag.) Solvers might understandably spot STORAX in the dictionary, assume Tor is a variant spelling to Thor and move on without considering Tyr, the old Norse war god with an entry in Chambers, or STYRAX, the genus to which storax-producing trees belong. Dr Watson’s spies have ascertained that some have done just that, but Dr Watson thinks it possible, given the etymology of Thor (and despite the preamble note that ‘all … the component parts of thematic entries are in Chambers’), that their solutions will be passed, which would be a welcome étrenne (a New Year’s gift).
1. Shakespearean pouch over middle of costume POAKET (OAK in PET; poake + t) One of the hardest specials to identify with a very normal-looking clue and the ambiguity of ‘over’ in the wordplay.
3. A chap wih promptings, entering privies LATAMANURGESS (TAMANU in LARGESS; a man + urges, all in lats) It’s a racing certainty that the long solutions are thematic, but both tree and present here are obscure enough to prevent a quick solution.
5. With no special attachment this is how anti-union Scot feels in his beat? TOUK (i.e. to UK) To make sense of this clue, you need to read it very literally, replacing ‘this’ with the solution, i.e. ‘With no special attachment to UK is how…’. It’s still a bit inelegant in Dr Watson’s view, and what does ‘feels in his beat’ mean?
6. Twins rarely like conjoined ones, i.e. separated SAMES (S(i)ames(e)) A tricky wordplay taking advantage of the rarity of ‘same’ as a noun meaning twin.
8. Occupied with red wine reputed (French) one I have ATTENTDITAIVE (DITA in ATTENTIVE; at tent3 dit3 a I’ve) It’s satisfying to find a straight charade for a long non-word like this, even if it wasn’t possible to run it across the joins between the component words.
10. Woman given run around HASHERE (ASH in HERE; she in hare) The best of the special clues, with a convincingly normal surface.
18. Shift cycling shades STINT (cycling of tints) Azed knows exactly when this type of wordplay device will work best.
20. Elba? Italy’s mostly arid island IDRIS (I dr(y) Is) Fans of The Wire, Luther, and of course Marvel’s Thor, won’t have missed this reference. Azed’s clueing is on a roll here.
22. Replaced X-ray unit, Nigerian, on time REMIBOT (BO in REMIT; rem Ibo + t) ‘Replaced’ isn’t wordplay but part of the definition of rem, which is now known as a rad. Chambers is circumspect about ‘bo2’ as the correct term for a bo tree, which is a specific individual tree of enlightenment rather than a type of tree.
32. Not what this is, clearly PLAIN (2 mngs.) An in-joke for Azed solvers, whose puzzles split into ‘Plains’ and ‘Specials’ like this one.
Across: 11. OLEA (hidden); 12. URTICA (it in a cru, all rev.); 15. COTTAS (anag.); 17. ENEMAS (men, rev., in anag.); 21. TRUANTS (tru(e) ants); 29. MISRATE (rat in mise); 31. SET-UPS (anag.); 35. ROBERT (BE in rort); 37. STASIS (Stasi + s); 38. VEIN (‘vain’).
Down: 2. OLDEN (d in olen(t)); 4. ALICANT (can in a lit); 7. GROSET (rose in g(il)t); 9. TITLED (t in tiled); 13. CASSATA (sat in casa); 23. DEMERSE (Med, rev. + Erse); 24. OVERTAX (overt ax); 25. ISOBAR (soba in IR); 26. CABRIT (anag. in CT); 28. ESSENE ((l)essene(d)); 30. ERROR ((t)error); 34. TELA (anag.; i.e. web of lies).