April Fool’s Day has been around as long as I can remember, and as it happens for a very, very long time before I was born. All of us “celebrate” the day in some way or another, especially when children, and some pranksters are quite serious about it even when mature adults. Whatever one’s opinion of April Fool’s Day, it is steeped in tradition and history so probably will continue in some fashion long after we are gone. So just where did this craziness begin?
Rather than answer straight out, let me see if I can fool ya! Legends abound as to the origins with no evidence clearly traceable. Which of the listed origins is the most commonly believed, and which one is sheer poppycock?
- The Country Diary of Garden Lore, which chronicles the goings-on in an English garden, says that April Fools’ Day “is thought to commemorate the fruitless mission of the rook (the European crow), who was sent out in search of land from Noah’s flood-encircled ark.”
- The beginnings are tied in with the Romans’ end-of-winter celebration, Hilaria, at the end of the Celtic new year when festivals were marked with masquerades and tomfoolery.
- The sweeping adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 moved the New Year permanently to January 1 rather than March 25 as it had been in the Julian calendar. Due to March 25 falling during Holy Week in the western world, New Year’s Day had been celebrated on April 1 for centuries. Those people who could be tricked into believing April 1 was still the proper day to celebrate the New Year earned the sobriquet of “April fools.”
- The timing of this day of pranks is related to the arrival of spring, when nature “fools” mankind with fickle weather.
- The French trace the custom to the abundance of young, newly hatched fish found in French streams and rivers during early April. These young fish were easy to fool with a hook and lure. Therefore, the French called them ‘Poisson d’Avril’ or ‘April Fish.’ Soon it became customary to fool people on April 1, as a way of celebrating the abundance of foolish fish. The French still use the term ‘Poisson d’Avril’ to describe April Fool’s Day pranks.
What do you think? What if I were to tell you that ALL of those origin stories are true? Am I yanking your chain? LOL!
The bottom line is that historians have no concrete idea where April Fool’s Day began. The most commonly believed origin, at least for Europe, is the Julian vs. Gregorian calendar theory. There is no doubt that the chaotic dating systems throughout Europe resulted in numerous troubles, some leading to foolishness of various sorts. However, the varied and gradual nature of calendar reform in European countries makes the hypothesis of this being the precise origin of April Fool’s Day problematic.
A great article on the “calendar theory” and much more on April Fool’s Day origins can be read at The Museum of Hoaxes.
Adding to the mystery is that there are dozens of historical festivals involving pranks and foolish behavior. The article at Museum of Hoaxes lists many of them. The four other origin theories I noted above are a mere drop in the bucket. Countries in Europe and beyond have traditions involving a “fool’s day” and the like, such as the Twelfth Night revelry with the Lord of Misrule, many with pagan roots. Not all of these occurred in April, or even the spring, although most are linked to new year celebrations, which in turn have a link to the previous calendar changes. Twelfth Night, for instance, is directly tied to the medieval Festus Fatuorum, or “Feast of Fools,” and evolved from the Roman Saturnalia, an ancient year-end festival of merrymaking and mockery.
All of these possibilities point to the fact that April Fool’s Day is far older than presumed. At least in the general sense of having a day devoted to playing tricks and jesting. Furthermore, evidence strongly indicates there isn’t a single launching point in time or country. Early written references are vague, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1392 poem Nun’s Priest’s Tale and a 1508 French poem by Eloy d’Amerval. Both of these, and others, can be read about on The Museum of Hoaxes.
While these written words exist, and may be significant as to the origins, they are ambiguous other than to shed light on a tendency for people to play jokes on certain days. The first clear notation comes from English antiquarian John Aubrey. In 1686 he published a book of researched customs and superstitions, writing: “Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.”
By the eighteenth century written references to April Fool’s Day became plentiful, and in some notable instances the pranks grew to major levels. For more on the latter, come back tomorrow!