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April Fools

Tracing back the ancient origins of April Fools’ Day

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On 1 st April every year, people around the world celebrate April Fools’ Day, sometimes called All Fools’ Day, a day when merriment and joviality is supposed to reign and pranks, practical jokes, and hoaxes are socially sanctioned.  The tradition of April Fools’ Day has been observed for at least five centuries, but evidence suggests it traces back nearly two millennia or more.  Despite the day being marked by many countries around the world, there is still little agreement as to its true origins.

A popular theory suggests that April Fools’ day is a remnant of early ‘renewal festivals’ which took place in many different cultures to mark the beginning of spring. The Romans, for example, had a festival named Hilaria on 25 th March, which they marked with masquerades and "general good cheer." According to the Museum of Hoaxes , these festivities typically involved “ritualized forms of mayhem and misrule.”  Participants donned disguises, played tricks on friends as well as strangers, and inverted the social order.

An ancient Roman myth also tells the story of the God Pluto who abducted Proserpina, the Goddess of grain and harvest. Proserpina's mother could only hear the voice of her daughter when she searched for her in the vast expense of the underworld. This fruitless search ended in vain and inspired the idea of a fool's errand.  However, the concept of the fool’s errand has also been linked to other historical events.

According to the Biblical theory, the 1 st April is the day that Jesus was sent from Pontius Pilate to Herod and back again, a journey which has also been associated with the old expression of sending someone on a fool’s errand.

During the middle ages, a number of celebrations developed which appear to have evolved from earlier pagan festivals and which served as direct predecessors to April Fools’ Day. The most important of these was the Festus Fatuorum (the Feast of Fools) which evolved out of the Saturnalia. On this day, (mostly observed in France) celebrants elected a mock pope and made fun of church rituals. The church, of course, did its best to stamp out the tradition, but it persisted until the sixteenth century.  In late medieval Europe, fools, jokers, or jesters, as they came to be known, were popular entertainers who performed in town squares and royal courts. Much of the entertainment was performed in a comic style and many jesters made contemporary jokes in word or song about people or events well known to their audiences.

A medieval jester - April Fool's Day

A medieval jester. Image source: Wikipedia

Another theory regarding the origins of April Fools’ relates to the change of calendar in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar (the Gregorian Calendar) to replace the old Julian Calendar.   A number of ancient cultures, including the Romans, celebrated New Year's Day on or around 1 st April, but the new calendar called for New Year's Day to be celebrated 1 st January. According to a popular explanation, those who refused to accept the new date, or did not learn about it, and continued to celebrate New Year's Day on 1 st April were reportedly subjected to pranks and ridicule and were rumoured to have been called “April Fools” for observing the holiday months later.

However, there are two difficulties with this explanation.  The first is that it doesn't fully account for the spread of April Fools' Day to other European countries. For example, the Gregorian calendar was not adopted by England until 1752, but April Fools' Day was already well established there by then. The second is that the first direct historical record of April Fools’ Day traces back to a poem by Flemish writer Eduard de Dene in 1561, two decades before the calendar change took place.  The poem is about a nobleman who hatches a plan to send his servant back and forth on absurd errands on April 1st, supposedly to help prepare for a wedding feast. The servant recognizes that what’s being done to him is an April 1st joke.

Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the calendar changes served more as an excuse to codify a general spirit of joviality already associated with the season than as the sole inspiration for April Fools’ Day. While no one really knows exactly where, when and why the celebrations started, it seems clear that the tradition of a day devoted to honouring merriment and misrule had ancient origins which were most likely rooted in springtime festivities.

By April Holloway

References

Where Does April Fools' Day Originate? – Discovery News

April Fools’ Day 2014: Religious Origins of The World's Silliest Holiday – Huffington Post

April Fools' Day Origin, History – About Urban Legends

April Fools' Day: Origin and History

Comments

YHWH Allah's picture

First recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth would be celebrated on the 25th, December. Constantine the Great started All Fools’ Day when he changed Jesus Christ’s birthday from April 1st. Many of his subjects created jests about it and practical jokes became the norm on the 1st, April. Shop ‘til you drop.

Mishkan 1.2m below Heel Stone
@ Stonehenge, United Kingdom

angieblackmon's picture

what a great around the world explanation! LOVE that you guys keep up with the holidays and the history of them! :)

love, light and blessings

AB

Justbod's picture

Amazing that the origins of such a strong tradition are so unclear. Thanks for such a topical article!

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

You might enjoy my Gothic ghost story for April Fools' Day:

THE SHEETED DEAD http://goo.gl/MvNP0y

Regards, FREAKY FOLK TALES :)

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