I’d intended to start this post with best wishes for Twelfth Night, which I always thought of as falling on January 6. These days I find myself checking a lot of my assumptions, however, and on consulting Wikipedia I found that “in most Western ecclesiastical traditions, Christmas Day is considered the ‘First Day of Christmas’ and the Twelve Days are 25 December–5 January, inclusive, making Twelfth Night on 5 January, which is Epiphany Eve. In older customs, the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from sundown on the evening of 25 December until the morning of 6 January, meaning that the Twelfth Night falls on the evening of 5 January and the Twelfth Day falls on 6 January. However, in some church traditions only full days are counted, so that 5 January is counted as the Eleventh Day, 6 January as the Twelfth Day, and the evening of 6 January is counted as the Twelfth Night.”
How’s that for settling the matter? For those who observe the Twelfth Night holiday—and observe it today (or maybe tonight), not yesterday (or maybe last night)!—here’s my virtual glass 🥂 raised along with yours.
Twelfth Night (considered as falling on the 6th) has a connection to mystery fiction that regular readers of EQMM are probably already aware of, since we mention it most years in our first issue of the year, which celebrates Sherlock Holmes, and that connection is that dedicated Sherlockians believe January 6 to be the birthday of the great detective. I’d once assumed (again, until I checked) that the selection of this day, which was never specifically mentioned in the original writings, was due to the nature of the Twelfth Night holiday, for in addition to special feasts and songs, Twelfth Night has traditionally been a time for masking, concealment, and role playing—a time when everything is to be turned topsy turvy. This, of course, is exemplified in Shakespeare’s play written to be performed on Twelfth Night, and so titled.
Although Twelfth Night celebrations vary depending on the country of origin, one of the traditions apparently common to most is the “king cake,” a dessert into which are inserted a bean and a pea. If a man discovers a bean in his portion, he becomes “king” for the celebration, while a woman who finds a pea becomes “queen.” It’s a kind of role playing that upturns the natural order, just as in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night Malvolio believes that he can be transformed into a nobelman. Since mystery fiction involves discovering what is concealed, finding the truth beneath the false roles people play, and bringing order out of disorder, January 6 always seemed to me an appropriate birthday for the world’s greatest ficitonal sleuth. But it turns out that there was also a textual reason for the choice, according to the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s oldest Sherlockian organization.
The date was chosen by Christopher Morley, one of the founding members of the BSI, partly, they say, because Shakespeare was the author most often quoted in the original Holmes stories and because two of those quotations were from Twelfth Night. If this seems a thin foundation for establishing the date of Holmes’s birth, the BSI have solidified it with eighty-six years of birthday parties—mostly black-tie banquets in New York City—and by propagating their assertion that the great detective remains alive and well, bee-tending in his retirement, at the age, this year, of 167.
EQMM’s fouding editor, Frederic Dannay, was a lifelong Sherlockian and an early member of the BSI. It was he who started the tradition of EQMM donating special Sherlockian issues to attendees of the yearly birthday bash. This year, for the first time in many decades, there will be no issues of EQMM beside the plates of BSI members, since, due to COVID-19, the 2021 banquet will be virtual. This fact did not, however, prevent us from packing our January/February 2021 issue with Sherlockian treats, including another in the award-nominated series of Holmes parodies by Terence Faherty, a stunning new Holmes pastiche by Australian Mike Adamson, an Ellery Queen pastiche with a Sherlockian theme by Josh Pachter, the translation of a story by classic French author Marcel Aymé featuring his sleuth O’Dubois, whom some refer to as the French Sherlock Holmes, and another episode in the popular Holmes on the Range series by Steve Hockensmith. The issue also inaugurates EQMM’s 80th year of continuous publication, which gives us two more reasons to raise a glass on this holiday that marks the official end to the holiday season.
To a happy new year! And to many years ahead (at least another 80!) in which we are able to share with you, our readers, the treasure of short mystery fiction. Cheers! —Janet Hutchings