Tackling the GCHQ 2021 Christmas Card!

GCHQ card

Every year, one of the puzzliest challenges many solvers will encounter all year descends upon the world, as the GCHQ issue their Christmas card.

The GCHQ — or Government Communications Headquarters — provides security and intelligence services for the British government. Back when they were known as GC&CS — Government Code and Cypher School — they were responsible for funding Bletchley Park and its successes cracking the German “Enigma” code during World War II.

This year’s Christmas card was directed toward solvers with a secondary school education (essentially solvers age 11 and up), and was less complicated than offerings in previous years, but still offered an engaging challenge.

Here’s the link in case you’d like to try it for yourself.

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Last chance before we walk through the solution!

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Okay, ready? Good! Let’s do this!


GCHQ card 1a

Clue number one is an easy one, as you simply read the first letter of each word in the message. Your solution is CHRISTMAS.

Clue number two is a simple 4×4 across-and-down grid where 1-Across and 1-Down are the same word, 2-Across and 2-Down are the same word, and so on. The completed grid reads:

T H I S
H O O T
I O W A
S T A G

And the letters in THIS are highlighted in the grid, so the solution is THIS.

GCHQ card 1b

Clue number three is a complete-the-sequence puzzle where the names of the Hogwarts houses from Harry Potter are listed, but each house in the sequence has more letters missing from the beginning and end of the word. Slytherin is the missing house, and with three letters missing from the beginning and end of the word, your solution is THE.

Clue number four is a Blackout! or Minesweeper-style puzzle where you deduce the location of bombs in the grid according to numbers in the neighboring squares. Once you’re marked off each of the bombs, the remaining spaces form letters and spell out a word. Your solution is SAFE.

GCHQ card 1c

Clue number five is a mnemonic device, and solvers must puzzle out what chain of related words is represented by the device. In this case, the major taxonomic ranks that are used to organize related living things are represented, and the word Kindly points toward the second word in the taxonomic ranks, so your solution is Kingdom.

Clue number six has three overlapping circles, each with letters inside, and you have to figure out not only what the words are, but what missing six-letter word would sit in the middle of this Venn diagram.

I found this to be the hardest puzzle in the card by far, as I tried and failed in numerous attempts to anagram the letters into recognizable words. Finally, I decoded the shortest word — LEEDS — only because I remembered that this is a British organization and I have friends who live in Leeds.

Leeds led me to unraveling the other two answers — MANCHESTER and NEWCASTLE — and my meager knowledge of European football provided the missing six-letter word. The solution is UNITED.

GCHQ card 1d

Clue number seven is a simple cryptogram, and is quickly decoded to read “This is the 7th question: people born between nineteen forty-six and nineteen sixty-four are commonly known as baby what?”

The solution appears to be BOOMERS, but there is an additional instruction to follow after decoding the message, and you must encode the answer. Following the same letter-substitution rule, BOOMERS becomes KEEPING, and that is your solution.

GCHQ card 2

Now each word must be placed in order on the tree for your message to properly read out.

  • The word BABY in clue 7 points toward the stroller icon, so our message begins with KEEPING.
  • The lightning bolt icon refers to Harry Potter, so the word THE from clue 3 goes next.
  • The soccer ball icon points to clue 6, so the word UNITED continues the message.
  • The word KINGDOM from clue 5 aligns with the crown icon, so that’s our fourth word.
  • The lock icon is most closely associated with SAFE from clue 4, so that’s next.
  • At first, I thought the image of the Stag was a Harry Potter reference, but I then realized that STAG was one of the answers in clue 2’s grid, so this was the place for THIS.
  • Finally, the present is the perfect spot for clue 1’s solution, CHRISTMAS.

And the message is revealed, celebrating the mission of the GCHQ itself: Keeping the United Kingdom Safe This Christmas.

Did you unravel this festive puzzly challenge, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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