The history of April Fools’ Day has been debated since at least 1808, when the British magazine Apollo, asked, ”Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” But the practice of making someone feel foolish or sending them on a “fools’ errand” on April 1st has been around a lot longer. So, what is the origin of this day that celebrates foolishness with hoaxes and pranks? Read on and find out about the foolish history of April Fools’ Day.
The origins of April Fools’ Day are about as murky as The Mighty Mississippi, but one thing is clear, people all over the world celebrate what is essentially a non-holiday by playing practical jokes on their unsuspecting and gullible friends.
Some have speculated that the tradition came about when, in 1564, France’s King Charles IX declared that the Julian calendar was out, and the Gregorian calendar was in. The change shifted the celebration of the new year to January 1st, while adding the February leap year. It has been posited, by those who embrace this event as the origin of April Fools’ Day, that those who failed to keep up with the new fashion were called passé and deemed “April Fools.”
The tradition seems more likely to have originated in Great Britain, because it was actually the British, not the French, who observed the Christian Feast of Annunciation and held that New Year’s Day actually occurred on March 25th, to coincide with the annual feast.
But, while there seems to be solid support for the British theory, Shakespeare, writing in the 16th century, (and a man generally enthralled by fools of all kind) never so much as mentions April Fools’ Day in any of his works. Curious, right?!
There are a few other theories about the origin of this silly holiday tradition. Hilaria, also called Roman Laughing Day, celebrated the Anatolian goddess Cybele, and was celebrated around March 25th. And the Feast of Fools was a term given to many medieval festivals celebrated between the fifth and sixteenth centuries in Europe. These celebrations developed a tradition of practical jokes, especially when observed in Spain.
The earliest written reference to April Fools’ Day is found in a poem, written in 1508 by Eloy d’Amerval, a French choirmaster and composer. The poem, titled Le livre de la deablerie, is a dialogue between Satan and Lucifer, in which they plot future evil deeds, but are continuously interrupted by the author, who records accounts of earthly and divine virtue, and contemporary musical practice.
The poem’s only interest would be to music historians, were it not for the line, “maquereau infâme de maint homme et de mainte femme, poisson d’avril.”
The phrase “poisson d’avril” translates from the French to April Fish and is the French term for an April Fool. To bad for anyone who happens to be in France on April 1st, too, because the French celebrate by going around on April Fools’ Day hanging fresh fish off the back collars of unsuspecting tourists and others.
Another written reference to April Fools’ Day is in “Refereyn vp verzendekens dach / Twelck den eersten April te zyne plach”, a comical poem written in 1561 by the Flemish writer Eduard De Dene. The poem tells the tale of a nobleman who hatches a mischievous plan to send his servant back and forth on absurd errands on April 1st, supposedly to help prepare for a wedding feast. The servant quickly recognizes his master’s April 1st joke, and each stanza of the poem ends with the harried servant quipping, “I am afraid that you are trying to make me run a fool’s errand.”
The tradition of celebrating April Fools’ Day with practical jokes, however, was well established by 1632, when legend states that the Duke of Lorraine and his wife escaped a prison at Nantes by dressing as peasants and walking right out the front gate. When the guards were alerted to the escape, they laughed at what they thought was an April Fools’ prank.
Oh well, at least they didn’t have to walk around with a fish hanging from their collar.