Jokes and Pranks: Here is the April Fools’ Day Origin Story
Every year, people celebrate April Fools’ Day with pranks, practical jokes, and hoaxes. Merriment, cheer, and joviality reign as people poke socially sanctioned fun at one another. This day has been popular for at least 500 years, though there is an argument that the observance of a fools’ day may be over 2000 years old. The April Fools Day origin story is still wrapped in mystery.
There is More than one History of April Fools Day
Many scholars suggest April Fools’ Day had its beginnings in ancient renewal festivals, which differed on date, but all marked the arrival of spring. Ancient Romans, for example, celebrated a festival called Hilaria every March 25th. According to the Museum of Hoaxes, this was a day of “general good cheer” which included masquerades and “ritualized forms of mayhem and misrule.” People would wear disguises, play tricks, and generally invert social order.
‘Romans during the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. (CC BY 3.0)
Roman myth also includes an adopted version of the story of Hades abducting Persephone (here called Pluto and Proserpina). Proserpina's mother went searching for her beloved daughter in the underworld, where she could hear her voice but never find her. The fruitless conclusion to her search is one of the inspirations for the idea of a ‘fool’s errand’ – but it isn’t the only one.
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‘L’enlèvement de Proserpine’ (The Rape of Proserpine) (circa 1636) by Peter Paul Rubens. (Public Domain)
Some Biblical scholars say April 1st is the day Jesus was sent from Pontius Pilate to Herod and back again; another story which some would say is an example of sending someone on a fool’s errand.
There are several celebrations which appear in the middle ages and seem to have connections to earlier pagan festivities – many of which could be the predecessors to April Fools’ Day. The most prominent is the Festus Fatuorum (the Feast of Fools), a day which seems heavily inspired by the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
Drawing of a drunken man being carried away by friends during Saturnalia. In the background someone watches them with an empty urn drooping from his hand. (1884) By John Reinhard Weguelin. ( Public Domain )
The day, which was most popular in France, included electing a mock pope and poking fun at church rituals. As you can imagine, the Church did their best to end the celebration, yet it existed into the 16th century.
Late Medieval Europe saw the appearance of fools, jokers, or jesters performing in town squares and royal courts. Their entertainment was generally comedic in nature and many of the jesters would use well-known individuals and events as the basis for their jokes or songs.
A court jester. (Public Domain)
Another popular explanation for the origins of April Fools’ Day is linked to the change in 1582 to the Gregorian Calendar, under the direction of Pope Gregory XIII. The Gregorian Calendar was created to replace the old Julian Calendar. Part of the change included the moving of New Year's Day to January 1st, as opposed to the popular pagan honoring of that day on or near April 1st. It’s said that people who would not, or forgot to, make the change to the new date and kept celebrating the new year in April were victims to pranks and ridicule as “April Fools.”
Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. ( Public Domain )
Had You Fooled?
There are, however, some issues with accepting this hypothesis for the origins of April Fools’ Day. First, it doesn’t explain how or why the celebration spread to other European countries. Consider this, the Gregorian calendar wasn’t adopted in England until 1752, but April Fools' Day was already popular there by then.
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The second problem is that the first clear historical record of April Fools’ Day comes from a poem by Flemish writer Eduard de Dene and dates to 1561, two decades before the calendar change. That poem involves a nobleman sending his servant all over the place on ridiculous errands supposedly to prepare for a wedding feast on April 1st. In the poem, the servant realizes the nobleman is playing an April 1st joke on him.
Even if no one is clear on the true place, time, or reason why April Fools’ Day started, it is evident that ancient springtime festivals likely played a role in honoring merriment and misrule…for at least one day.
Boy: Mother, you know what! While you've been gone, the stork came here with a little brother! ...April Fool! (Public Domain)
Top Image: The laughing jester // Art museum of Stockholm, Sweden. (Deriv.) Source: Public Domain