The Mysterious History of the April Fool

The Canyon ChronicleBy The Canyon Chronicle

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The Mysterious History of the April Fool
April Fools’ Day—the only day of the year when we’re encouraged to take jokes to levels that boarder on cruelty and spin yarns that verge on downright lying. The Day of the Fool has survived through centuries and across cultures and, surprisingly, historians still can’t agree on the origins of this whimsical holiday. One contender for the creation story of the foolish day connects it directly to its April 1 celebration date. In 1582, Charles IX of France decided to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Under the old system, the new year started with the spring equinox which occurs around April 1st. The Gregorian year begins on January 1st. As with all change, some people resisted this new system, continuing to celebrate during the last week of March up to the first day of April. These people came to be the April Fools and were fair game for taunts and pranks. One popular activity involved sticking a paper fish on the back of the unsuspecting holdout. Evidently an April fish, or poisson d’avril, is a young, easily caught fish, or a gullible person. Could this be where the practice of putting “Kick Me” signs on people’s backs started? Another possible precursor is the celebration of Hilaria in ancient Rome. For this festival, the followers of Cybele, mother of the gods, dressed up in disguises and took to the streets mocking magistrates with impunity. These fun-filled escapades took place on March 25th following the much more solemn days commemorating the death and resurrection of Cybele’s consort, Attis. Though in reverse order, this holiday might remind us of Mardi Gras followed by Lent, another religious custom centered around the death and rebirth of a god. Both of these April Fools-like holidays involve the spring equinox, and some historians have proposed that the modern practices stem directly from the equinox itself. Pranking comes from the idea that at this time of year Mother Nature messes with humankind by changing the weather. But this theory pales next to the other options. Surely a holiday involving typically normal people plotting and planning ways to taunt their friends and family deserves a more colorful origin story than unpredictable spring weather. April 1 may be connected to some foolish behavior described in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1392). In the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” Chauntecleer, a vain cock, is tricked by a fox. The problem with this theory has to do with those darned medieval scribes. Scholars debate whether the line that establishes the date is “Syn March bigan thritty days and two,” (32 days since March, making it April 1); or “Syn March was gon thritty days and two” (32 days after March was gone, making it May 2). Many wise scholars advise that we ditch this theory because thinking for too long about Chaucer has been proven to erode brain cells. April Fools! I just made that last bit up. I just can’t wrap my head around Middle English. In 1561, Flemish writer, Eduard De Dene published a lighthearted poem about a nobleman who sent his servant on absurd errands on April 1st. Evidently, at the end of each stanza the servant says, “you are trying to make me run a fool’s errand.” Some scholars believe this is the first mention of pranks being played on the first of April. Clearly, unless someone discovers some ancient manuscript proving the origin of the day, we’ll never know for certain where April Fool’s Day started. And if a manuscript does surface, how can we be sure it’s not a clever prank? One thing we do know, by 1708 people already questioned the origins of the holiday. In the British Apollo magazine, a writer asks, “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” By this point in history, the day of jokesters was well-established and the origin far enough in the past to have been forgotten. Perhaps we should abandon the quest for the birth of the day and instead ponder why poking fun at people is so compelling that April Fool’s Day has survived through the ages and across so many countries. Currently, “normal” people in Ireland, Scotland, France, the UK, Sweden, Greece, Italy, Poland, the U.S., Brazil, and India take part in some version of the holiday. Clearly, the delight of pranking others lives deep within us. In fact, a team of professors of comparative religion once proposed that the ancients interpreted Eve offering the forbidden fruit to her mate might have been part of an elaborate prank. Could the tradition go back to the biblical creation story? April Fools! Gotcha again! Didn’t I?
The Canyon Chronicle

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April 1, 2022