Rowling Library: Birthday Misconception

The latest issue of The Rowling Library is out and the cover story, ‘The Birthday Misconception,’ is a delight. You can download the issue here and the ‘Birthday’ piece is on pages 16 to 21. The article does not list an author in a byline which it does with the four contributors listed on the homepage so I’m going to assume it was written by Patricio Tarantino, TRL founder and editor-in-chief as well as a friend of

I wrote that the article “is a delight” because I happened to share the misconception the piece explodes, namely, that Hogwarts acceptance letters arrive on the magical person’s eleventh birthday. Harry gets his letter on his eleventh birthday in a Hagrid Special Delivery just after midnight in the House on the Rock, but obviously Hogwarts owls had been coming to the Dursleys’ house and various points for days before that. In discussion with the HogwartsProfessor staff about this story, Beatrice Groves noted the prevalence of this misconception “is another example of the way in which the books are shaped around Harry’s experience, something we’re so deeply embedded in that we don’t even notice the anomaly.” 

After the jump, I will review the article’s various points of evidence about the ‘birthday misconception’ from Harry Potter canon, note some overlooked points, and offer my conclusions on the subject, which differ slightly from the TRL writer’s. See you there!

(1) Evidence, Counterpoints: ‘The Birthday Misconception’ discusses the Philosopher’s Stone fact of when the acceptance letters began to arrive at Privet Drive as its bedrock proof that these messages do not arrive on the recipient’s birthday and then explains the logic of this along ad absurdum lines. What if the kid was born on 31 August? There’s not enough time for him or her to make a decision with parents and get ready. The article then notes that Ginny in Chamber of Secrets received her acceptance letter at the Burrow a week before her birthday at the same time as everyone else gets an owl with their book lists for the coming year. Conclusion?

What actually makes the most sense, and also suits the events of the books, is for letters to be sent out the summer before the first year of Hogwarts begins, so that prospective students have enough time to prepare themselves and make the necessary purchases. Also, by giving everyone the same amount of time, it creates a fairer situation where everyone, wizarding and muggle families alike, has the same number of days to do what they need to do before going to King’s Cross.

The author is aware that Rowling has contradicted this point in her biography of Minerva McGonagall, in which the future Deputy Headmistress responsible for mailing the letters receives hers on her 4 October birthday, and in the ‘Vernon and Petunia Dursley’ entry at that site, too. He attributes this to carelessness or that The Presence was “carried away by the collective unconsciousness” and its misconception. He allows that there is another possibility to his theory that all letters are sent at the same time in the summer before convocation:

One possible explanation that might make everyone happy, or at least those who want all the canonical events to fit together perfectly, is that Hogwarts letters are sent out at random during the 12 months prior to the start of the school year. By pure chance or coincidence, McGonagall received hers on her birthday, while Harry received his a week before his. This theory or explanation would somehow fit the philosophy of Hogwarts, a school that has a bit of chaos in its organization.

This is a long way from “everybody gets their letters at the same time in the summer” but it raises an interesting point, namely, “What are we doing?” Are we trying to force the puzzle pieces so “all the canonical events fit together perfectly”? Must the process be both logical and a system followed every year? When do we allow for the possibility that the author, famous for her planning, didn’t give this matter much thought or didn’t think it sufficiently important to make sure there was consistency throughout the series? More on this in the conclusions.

(2) Neglected Evidence: Evan Willis wrote about the most dramatic acceptance letter delivery besides Harry’s experience in the House on the Rock, “There is no sign of when Dumbledore’s memory of delivering Voldemort’s letter occurred, but there are no signs of it being in the middle of winter (no description of coats, etc. being worn).” He is referring of course to ‘The Secret Riddle,’ chapter 13 of Half-Blood Prince, in which chapter Harry and the headmaster travel via Pensieve to Dumbledore’s first contact with Tom Marvolo Riddle. This is an exceptional case all around, due, one supposes, to the boy in question being an orphan in care.

There is no owl, it doesn’t seem to be the child’s New Year’s Eve birthday as Evan Willis noted, and Dumbledore does what no letter possibly could. He introduces the boy Dark Lord to the Wizarding World, interviews him to begin understanding his character, and indoctrinates him about the expectations and responsibilities of wizards with respect to magic, ethical behavior, and respect. In a delightful piece, it is a shame the author of ‘The Birthday Misconception’ did not discuss this letter’s arrival.

Here is my prejudice. I have already admitted I thought that the acceptance letters arrived on the addressee’s birthday. I still prefer that idea — or that it can arrive days earlier, especially for those born in the summer. Why?

I have more times than I can remember through the years explained that Hermione Granger was so well read and informed about the Wizarding World though Muggle-born just because, in addition to being as intelligent as she was, she had been studying all her first and second term textbooks (and every other book she could find in Diagon Alley) for the greater part of a year. Born in October, she had a spectacular advantage over classmates born in the following summer. The McGonagall story confirms in the idea that, except for those born in summer, the letters arrive on or near the eleventh birthday.

Dumbledore’s meeting with young Riddle at the orphanage makes that seem unlikely.

There are no cues to dates in Prince’s thirteenth chapter adventure other than that it is before 1 September; as Evan notes, there are no weather markers suggesting late December and I think we might expect the orphanage building’s temperature to have been cold enough to merit a mention. The matron of the orphanage describes the boy’s birth and his mother’s death as happening on New Year’s Eve (266) which, again, probably would have led to her noting “this time of year eleven years ago” if it was late December or early January. These several dogs not barking, I want to assume it was Spring or early Summer, temperate weather and seasons.

(3) Conclusions: So where does that leave us?

I think the “force the pieces” possibility offered by the TRL article writer as an alternative to all letters are sent at the same time is as good as we are going to get.

The best assumption is, as we know from all the textual evidence, Hogwarts is not a machine-like operation with a neo-Prussian bureaucracy running on a carefully adhered to time-table. I imagine that somewhere in the school — McGonagall’s office? — there is a magical device that creates welcoming letters for new students (from the unknown birth registry that detects magical ability?) and book lists for all. The Head of Gryffindor House sends them out when she gets around to it, which varies from year to year. I expect Muggle borns and those adopted into Muggle families or in an orphanage receive special consideration and those from wizarding families proportionately less. The priorities of a Deputy Head Mistress being what they are, most letters would go out the summer before the student’s first term.

That these letters require an acceptance by return owl on the same day of delivery (at least Harry’s does and it is the only letter we receive) suggests the magical device only creates a list of names, birthdays, magical status (Muggle or not), and addresses rather than actual letters, which must be made individual specific with name and date. I imagine McGonagall sitting down to do these all at once for the wizard family children the first week of summer break and, checking the list periodically, throughout the year for Muggle-borns.

Dumbledore, in this scenario, perhaps being Deputy Headmaster at the time and responsible for delivery of these letters, travels to London to see T. M. Riddle the first week after Hogwarts students have traveled home via the Hogwarts Express. If the orphan had had any family, perhaps the letter would have been delivered by owl and much closer to New Year’s Eve. He didn’t so the in-person trip was made at the Transfiguration Professor’s earliest convenience.

Louise Freeman summed it up well:
My assumption is that most Wizarding families know their kid is magical by the time they are school age and would be expecting the letter on or before the 11th birthday —  obviously the kids with late August birthdays need a little more time.  It’s only families like Neville’s , with kids that don’t show obvious signs of strong magic—  call them “suspected squibs”— who worry that they might not be “accepted” to Hogwarts.
For Muggleborns, I assume the process has to begin earlier, given that the parents would have to first be convinced the magical world exists, and second that it would be best for their kid to be part of it. It certainly could not be a hasty decision for Justin Finch-Fletchley’s parents to give up his place at Eton for Hogwarts; and, statistically speaking, most parents of Muggleborns were probably not planning on their 11 year old going off to boarding school in the first place.

What I think is most likely is that Rowling didn’t think out this subject in systemic detail, an unchanging process year to year by which eleven year old witches and wizards will come to Hogwarts, at least a process any more exact than “receive an acceptance letter and book list some time before the Hogwarts Express heads north from King’s Cross on 1 September.” What we are doing, then, in hunting for a logic and a system where, as likely as not, there is none is simply paying tribute to the author’s achievement in making us believe her imaginative world is that much like the profane, Muggle existence in which we live.

Your comments and correction are coveted as always.


  1. Brian Basore says

    If most wizards were home schooled as wizards, I wonder how names were picked for admission to Hogwarts. Hagrid says Harry’s name was placed on the list the day he was born. This can’t have been true of every pupil at Hogwarts. And, when Harry goes to buy robes for school, the lady in the shop asks, “Hogwarts, dear?” (What? Does that mean not everybody goes to Hogwarts?) She then notes that the boy already being fitted is also going to Hogwarts.

    I’ve wondered about these things a little, but they’ve never kept me from being swept up in the storytelling.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Brian Basore,

    Well wondered about! Might Wizarding – or, how much more, Muggleborn – children of mixed or foreign parental nationality living in the UK be invited to other schools on that basis – whether simply or as option?

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