The inaugural meeting of our new scion, The Hated Rivals on the Surrey Shore, was held on January 5th, 2002, the day before the date that many Sherlockians consider to be Sherlock Holmes’ birthday. A typo slipped through in our first press release, however, and stated that January 5th was Holmes’ birthday, and not the generally accepted date of January 6th. Regrettably, some of the baser elements in the hobby chose to mock us for the error (although many Sherlockians – including the mockers – also celebrated the Great Detective’s birthday on Saturday, the 5th, that year and not on Sunday, the 6th — but, then again, consistency isn’t necessarily a requirement in dealing with a fictional character). That incident got me wondering, however, as to how January 6 actually became the “accepted” date of Holmes’ birth. After all, many things that are “generally accepted” by even a majority of people aren’t necessarily correct. Six hundred years ago, for example, many people thought that the earth was flat, but that didn’t make it so. And although millions celebrate Christ’s birthday on December 25, that date wasn’t chosen until hundreds of years later — and almost certainly was not the date of his birth. (Most Biblical scholars, incidentally, now believe that Christ’s birth probably fell in early September.) Doyle certainly never specified a date for his creation’s birth in any of the original stories, nor in any of his comments about them – at least that I’m aware of. I recalled, however, having read once, many years ago, that the date for Holmes’ birthday was based on the fact that the Shakespearean play most quoted in the Canon (as the original Holmes stories are called by Sherlockians) was Twelfth Night. Ah, an ingenious deduction, if true. But there’s still one little problem: According to every source that I checked on the Internet, as well as in my pocket calendar, Twelfth Night is January 5 — and not January 6. That latter date, per all my sources, is actually Twelfth Day. So how, then, did we get from Twelfth Night to January 6 as Holmes’ date of birth?
At the time I began to examine the problem, my research library was in much the same condition that Watson often found Holmes’ many newspapers — scattered willy-nilly around the room — mainly because I was heavily involved in writing a Victorian sourcebook for a publishing company I’d freelanced for in the past. That project also was devouring much of my free time, so rather than try to dig through all the Sherlockian tomes that I’ve accumulated over the years, I chose a more direct approach: I first queried Peter Blau, former editor of The Baker Street Journal and Sherlockian extraordinaire. His answer to my query was somewhat surprising. Apparently, according to Peter, the January 6 date was simply chosen by decree by the late Christopher Morely, cornerstone of the original Baker Street Irregulars, who saw no need to justify his choice. The Twelfth Night rationale, it seems, as well as others, came later — and from different sources, some of whom sought a Canonical justification for the date. Peter couldn’t recall the originator of that particular theory, so I then queried Sherlockian expert Paul Herbert, who provided me with the following information: William S. Baring-Gould, in his landmark The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, identified Twelfth Night with the January 6 date, noting that Holmes had mentioned that play twice in the Canon – more than any other. And that jogged my memory enough to recall that to be the source from which I’d picked up the idea. (Paul, by the way, also cited references from an article that appeared in the Baker Street Miscellanea in 1981, which quoted other, earlier sources for the January 6 date. In those, Mr. Morely was quoted as having chosen the January 6 date, variously, because an astrological reading had indicated it as Holmes birthday; because it coincided with the publishing date of the first issue of The Saturday Review for 1934, for which he was writing a column; and because it was the birthday of one of Mr. Morely’s brothers. Paul also cited Chris Redmond’s A Sherlock Holmes Handbook as attributing the Twelfth Night/January 6 connection to Mr. Morely, but not as to when he may have made it, so it’s possible — even likely — that Baring-Gould was still the original source for that (mis)connection.)
Now, Mr. Morely was unquestionably a pillar of the Sherlockian community and one whose decisions are not to be taken lightly. And Baring-Gould? Well, his work is almost required reading for any serious Sherlockian (if you can locate it today, that is). And yet, if no actual Canonical foundation exists for designating January 6 as the date for Holmes’ birthday – only tradition in honor of one of the greats of the hobby (and a curiously mistaken identification of Twelfth Night as January 6 by another) — may we not be justified in wondering whether following lockstep in such a tradition is all that necessary? After all, if Doyle thought it not important enough to date Holmes’ birth, does a specific date really matter? And WWHT? (What Would Holmes Think?) Probably that it’s an unimportant trifle — and Holmes declared in A Study in Scarlet that he had “no time for trifles.” (Of course, in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” he also said that “there is nothing so important as trifles,” but we somehow doubt he was referring to birthdays.) And yet, I find that I really kind of like the idea of even the tenuous Canonical association with Twelfth Night (as opposed to the more arbitrary nature and questionable foundations of the traditional date) — providing, of course, that we are to go with the correct date for that holiday. So what’s the solution?
To quote somewhat loosely from the Bible, “let no man judge you according to your observation of days and holidays.” Let those who thrive on tradition observe Holmes’ birthday as January 6, as in the past. As for the Hated Rivals on the Surrey Shore, we hereby designate the true Twelfth Night, January 5, as the Canonically verified date for the birth of the Supreme Sleuth of Baker Street. And by what authority do we do so? Why, none whatsoever. Other than, of course, that we choose to, just as Mr. Morely chose, for his own reasons, January 6. (And of course it could never have anything to do with that cursed typo in our first news release . . .) So let any “purists” who wish to do so go right ahead and rail at us (although if they’re truly purists and not merely traditionalists, you’d think that they’d insist only on a date that derives from some Canonical evidence, however slight it may be). But we tend to think that anyone who’d seriously take us to task for our decision has really lost the whole point of our hobby: Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be fun! Reading his adventures and discussing the finer — and often contradictory — points of the stories is fun! (And if you really disagree with that idea — the fun part, that is — well, you may want to consider whether you’ve perhaps taken up the wrong hobby . . .?)
And so, in the coming years, the Hated Rivals on the Surrey Shore will henceforth celebrate Twelfth Night as Sherlock Holmes’ true birthday — using the correct date of January 5. And if you’re also one who tends to buck tradition, why you’re quite welcome to join us — unless, of course, you should decide to designate an entirely different date for your own celebration. (Ummm, Watson’s birthday, anyone?) –Bill Barton
[Note: This article, in slightly different form, also appears in Vol. 1, No. 3, of our “From the Surrey Shore” newsletter, also available on this Web site as of June 2002.]