The Origin of April Fool’s Day

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April Fools’ Day (alternatively April Fool’s Day, sometimes All Fools’ Day) is celebrated on 1 April every year. 1 April is not a national holiday, but is widely recognized and celebrated in various countries as a day when people play practical jokes and hoaxes on each other called April fools.

In Italy, France and Belgium, children and adults traditionally tack paper fishes on each other’s back as a trick and shout “April fish!” in their local languages (pesce d’aprile!, poisson d’avril! and aprilvis! in Italian, French and Flemish, respectively). Such fish feature prominently on many late 19th-to early 20th-century French April Fools’ Day postcards. 800px-Cartes_postales_poissons_d'avril

The earliest recorded association between 1 April and foolishness is an ambiguous reference in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392). Many writers suggest that the restoration of 1 January by Pope Gregory XIII as New Year’s Day of the Gregorian Calendar in the 16th century was responsible for the creation of the holiday, sometimes questioned for earlier references.

Origins
Precursors of April Fools’ Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, held 25 March, and the Medieval Feast of Fools, held 28 December, still a day on which pranks are played in Spanish-speaking countries.

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392), the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is set Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two. Modern scholars believe there is a copying error in the extant manuscripts and that Chaucer actually wrote, Syn March was gon. Thus, the passage originally meant 32 days after April, i.e. 2 May, the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, which took place in 1381. Readers apparently misunderstood this line to mean “March 32,” i.e. 1 April. In Chaucer’s tale, the vain cock Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox.


In 1508, French poet Eloy d’Amerval referred to a poisson d’avril (April fool, literally “April fish”), a possible reference to the holiday. In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on 1 April. In 1686, John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day,” the first British reference. On 1 April 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to “see the Lions washed.”

An 1857 ticket to "Washing the Lions" at the Tower of London in London. No such event ever took place.

An 1857 ticket to “Washing the Lions” at the Tower of London in London. No such event ever took place.

In the Middle Ages, up until the late 18th century, New Year’s Day was celebrated on 25 March (Feast of the Annunciation) in most European towns. In some areas of France, New Year’s was a week-long holiday ending on 1 April. Many writers suggest that April Fools originated because those who celebrated on 1 January made fun of those who celebrated on other dates. Unfortunately, this explanation does not take into account the spread of the holiday throughout Europe. The Georgian calendar was not adopted into England until 1752, but April Fool’s Day had been established in England long before this time. There is also no historical evidence, only conjecture as to how the change from the Julian to the Georgian calendar affected this holiday’s origin.

The use of 1 January as New Year’s Day was common in France by the mid-16th century, and this date was adopted officially in 1564 by the Edict of Roussillon.

Longstanding Customs
In the UK, an April fool joke is revealed by shouting “April fool!” at the recipient, who becomes the “April fool.” A study in the 1950s, by folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, found that in the UK, and in countries whose traditions derived from the UK, the joking ceased at midday. A person playing a joke after midday is the “April fool” themselves. But this practice appears to have lapsed in more recent years.

In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is traditionally called Hunt-the-Gowk Day (“gowk” is Scots for a cuckoo or a foolish person), although this name has fallen into disuse. The traditional prank is to ask someone to deliver a sealed message requesting help of some sort. In fact, the message reads “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” The recipient, upon reading it, will explain he can only help if he first contacts another person, and sends the victim to this person with an identical message, with the same result.

In Iran, jokes are played on the 13th day of the Persian new year (Nowruz), which falls on 1 April or 2 April. This day, celebrated as far back as 536 BC, is called Sizdah Bedar and is the oldest prank-tradition in the world still alive today; this fact has led many to believe that April Fools’ Day has its origins in this tradition.


The 1 April tradition in France, Romandy and French-speaking Canada includes poisson d’avril (literally “April’s fish”), attempting to attach a paper fish to the victim’s back without being noticed. This is also widespread in other nations, such as Italy, where the term Pesce d’aprile (literally “April’s fish”) is also used to refer to any jokes done during the day. This custom also exists in certain areas of Belgium, including the province of Antwerp. The Flemish tradition is for children to lock out their parents or teachers, only letting them in if they promise to bring treats the same evening or the next day.

In Poland, prima aprilis (“April 1” in Latin) is a day full of jokes; various hoaxes are prepared by people, media (which sometimes cooperate to make the “information” more credible) and even public institutions. Serious activities are usually avoided. This conviction is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I signed on 1 April 1683, was backdated to 31 March.

April Fools’ Day Pranks
In 1957, the BBC pulled a prank, known as the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest prank, where they broadcast a fake video of Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti. The BBC were later flooded with requests to purchase a spaghetti plant, forcing them to declare the video as a prank on the news the next day.

Other Prank Days in the World
In Denmark, 1 May is known as “Maj-kat,” meaning “May-cat,” and is also a joking day. 1 May is also celebrated in Sweden as an alternative joking day. When someone has been fooled in Sweden, to disclose that it was a joke, the fooler says the rhyme “april april din dumma sill, jag kan lura dig vart jag vill” (“April, April, you stupid herring, I can fool you to wherever I want”) for April 1 jokes, or “maj maj måne, jag kan lura dig till Skåne” (May May moon, I can fool you into Scania) for May 1 jokes.

Both Danes and Swedes also celebrate April Fools’ Day (“aprilsnar” in Danish). Pranks on 1 May, are much less frequent. Most Swedish and Danish news media outlets will publish exactly one false story on 1 April, for newspapers this will typically be a first-page article but not the top headline.

28 December is the equivalent day in Spain and Ibero-America, which is also the Christian day of celebration of the “Day of the Holy Innocents.” The Christian celebration is a holiday in its own right, a religious one, but the tradition of pranks is not, though the latter is observed yearly. After somebody plays a joke or a prank on somebody else, the joker usually cries out, in some regions of Ibero-America: “Inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar” (“You innocent little dove that let yourself be fooled”). In Mexico, the phrase is “Inocente Para Siempre!” which means “Innocent Forever!”. In Argentina, the prankster says “Que la inocencia te valga!” (which roughly translates as a piece of advice on not to be as gullible as the pranked) In Spain, it is common to say just “Inocente!” (which in Spanish can mean “Innocent!”, but also “Gullible!”). Nevertheless, on the Spanish island of Minorca, “Dia d’enganyar” (“Fooling day”) is celebrated on 1 April because Menorca was a British possession during part of the 18th century.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in customs and tradiitons, holidays, legends and myths and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Origin of April Fool’s Day

  1. chassmm says:

    Reblogged this on Chassity Merritt and commented:
    Very Interesting!

  2. Pingback: History A'la Carte 5-22-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

  3. Pingback: WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ April Fool – Obstinate Headstrong Girl ~ author Renée Reynolds

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