April Fools’ Day, also called All Fools’ Day, is as eagerly awaited as Christmas for pranksters and mischievous older siblings all over the world. What other holiday, after all, inspires you to think up practical jokes and the errands of fools, from swapping the keys of your partner to tricking your mate into believing that their car was towed?
But how in the first place did this weird, prank-centric holiday come to be celebrated, and why is it called April Fools’ Day? To the origin of April Fools’ Day, the totally-legit, not-pulling-your-leg reaction is: Nobody really knows. “Apparently, April Fools’ Day is an ancient enough tradition that the earliest recorded references, such as the following excerpt from a letter to the British Apollo magazine in 1708, ask the same question we do: “Why does the custom of making April Fools continue? ”
The Roman custom of Hilaria, a spring festival held about March 25 in celebration of the first day of the year, is a possible precursor to the root of April Fools Day (we call this the vernal equinox, which typically falls on March 20). Festivities included sports, processions, and masquerades, during which aristocracy could be imitated to devious ends by disguised commoners.
It is difficult to tell whether the parallels of this ancient revel to the current April Fools’ Day are genuine or coincidental, since the first recorded mentions of the holiday did not occur until several hundred years later. For example, in 1561, a Flemish poet wrote some comical verse about a nobleman who, in preparation for a wedding feast, sends his servant back and forth on ridiculous errands (the title of the poem roughly translates to “Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April”). “The first mention in Britain of April Fools’ Day came in 1686 when biographer John Aubrey first described April as a “holy day of the fools.
It is clear that by the late 1600s, in Europe, the habit of sending springtime rubes on a “fool’s errand” was rampant. So many saps were fooled into schlepping to the Tower of London on April Fools’ Day, 1698, to see the “washing of the lions” (a ritual that does not exist) that a local newspaper’s April 2 edition had to refute the hoax, and publicly mock the schmoes who fell for it.
Some scholars speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563, France moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. As in the Hindu calendar, in the Julian Calendar, the new year started around April 1 with the spring equinox.
People who were late to get the news or refused to acknowledge that the beginning of the new year had passed to January 1 and proceeded to celebrate it throughout the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes and were dubbed “April fools.” These pranks included putting paper fish on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize aa young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.
It is also speculated that April Fools’ Day in the Northern Hemisphere was related to the vernal equinox, or the first day of spring, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, erratic weather.
From there, the line between lion washing and spaghetti farming is pretty clear. And while we do not know the root of April Fools’ Day, it is clear that April Fools’ Day, like so much of society, speaks to the inner jerk, and is therefore here to stay.
Check out my related post: How did Fish and Chips become British?