Quizzes and puzzles

Can you crack the GCHQ Christmas card code?

This year’s festive brainteaser has been specially designed for ages 11-18

Just as Brits across the UK are wrestling with the complexities of new Covid-19 restrictions, GCHQ – the nation’s intelligence and security organisation – has sent another head-scratcher our way.

Every year, GCHQ releases a Christmas card containing a festive brainteaser that is sent from director Sir Jeremy Fleming to national security colleagues and partners across the world.

This year’s card, which depicts a festive Christmas tree, sets a not-so-secret mission through a set of seven fiendish puzzles that increase in difficulty as you move through the challenge. 

As a special 2021 twist, this brain-busting puzzle has been specially designed for 11- to 18-year-olds. However, GCHQ “is encouraging everyone to test their skills and see if they can complete the challenge”.

The brainteaser is supported by Stemettes, a social enterprise aiming to inspire, support and motivate girls, young women and non-binary people to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. 

GCHQ’s annual puzzles are notoriously difficult. In 2016, the Christmas card tasks “were so hard that it took eight GCHQ cryptographers two months to compile”, with just three out of the 600,000 people who attempted the challenge getting close to completing it, said The Times

The Cheltenham-based cyber spy agency, best known for cracking the Enigma code during the Second World War, is hoping that schools and colleges across the country will share the puzzle with their pupils.

“GCHQ’s history is full of talented people tackling the country’s most complex challenges,” said Fleming in a statement. “If we’re to help keep the country safe, problem-solving skills and teamwork are absolutely crucial.”

So how far can you get with this year’s brainteaser?

To complete it, you must solve the seven puzzles, link your answers to the nodes on the tree and then uncover the hidden message. Good luck!

GCHQ puzzle

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