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PostSubject: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:24 pm

In 1708 a correspondent wrote in to the British Apollo magazine to ask, “Whence

proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” The question is one that many people are

still asking today.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:24 pm

The puzzle that April Fool’s Day presents to cultural historians is that it was only during

the eighteenth century that detailed references to it (and curiosity about it) began to

appear. But at that time, the custom was already well established throughout northern

Europe and was regarded as being of great antiquity. How had the tradition been

adopted by so many different European cultures without provoking more comments in

the written record?
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:25 pm

References to April Fool’s Day can be found as early as the 1500s. However, these early

references were infrequent and tended to be vague and ambiguous. Shakespeare,

writing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, made no mention of April

Fool’s Day, despite being, as Charles Dickens Jr. put it, a writer who “delights in fools in


Many theories have been put forward about how the tradition began. Unfortunately,

none of them are very compelling. So the origin of the “custom of making April Fools”

remains as much a mystery to us as it was back in 1708.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:26 pm

The Calendar-Change Theory

A French “April Fish” postcard.The most popular theory about the origin of April Fool’s

Day involves the French calendar reform of the sixteenth century.

The theory goes like this: In 1564 France reformed its calendar, moving the start of the

year from the end of March to January 1. Those who failed to keep up with the change,

who stubbornly clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate the New

Year during the week that fell between March 25th and April 1st, had jokes played on

them. Pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this

prank were thus called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish—which, to this day, remains the

French term for April Fools—and so the tradition was born.

The calendar-change hypothesis seems, on the surface, like a logical explanation for the

origin of April Fools. However, the hypothesis becomes less plausible if we examine the

history of calendar reform in more detail.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:27 pm

The Julian Calendar

The Julian Calendar, established by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, made January 1 the first day

of the year. But as Christianity spread throughout Europe, efforts were made to

christianize the calendar by moving New Year’s Day to dates of greater theological

significance, such as Christmas or Easter. Some countries continued to use January 1,

justifying this as the date of Christ’s circumcision. As a consequence, by the 1500s the

European calendar system was a mess. Not only had errors in the Julian calendar

caused the solar year to diverge from the calendar year, but also countries were

beginning the year on different dates.

Most regions in France had been using Easter as the start of the year since at least the

fourteenth century. This caused particular confusion since the date of Easter was tied to

the lunar cycle and changed from one year to the next. Sometimes the same date

would occur twice in a year.

However, the French used Easter as the start of the year primarily for legal and

administrative purposes. January 1, following the Roman custom, was widely regarded

as the traditional start of the year, and it was the day when people exchanged gifts.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:28 pm

Sixteenth-Century Reform

The practice of starting the year on Easter Day caused enormous practical

inconvenience, so around 1500 many people in France began to use January 1 as the

start of the calendar year. For instance, in early sixteenth-century French books, it is

common to see both forms of dating listed side-by-side (for titles published in January,

February, or March). By the mid-sixteenth century, a calendar system beginning on

January 1 was in wide use in France.

In 1563 King Charles IX decreed January 1 to be the first day of the year, thus aligning

legal convention with what had become the popular practice. His edict was passed into

law by the French Parliament on Dec. 22, 1564.

Eighteen years later, in 1582, Pope Gregory issued a papal bull decreeing sweeping

calendar reform. The Gregorian reform included moving the start of the year to January

1, as well as creating a leap-year system and eliminating ten days from the month of

October 1582 in order to correct the drift of the calendar. The Pope had no formal power

to make governments accept this reform, but he urged Christian nations to do so.

France immediately accepted the reform, although it had already changed the start of

the year in 1564. (Many histories of April Fool’s Day mistakenly suggest that France only

moved the start of the year in 1582 when it accepted the Gregorian calendar reform in

its entirety.)

With this history in mind, it becomes clear that the calendar-change hypothesis is a

problematic explanation for the origin of April Fool’s Day. The switch to January 1 did not

occur suddenly in France. It was a gradual process, spanning an entire century. And

even before the switch, the French New Year had no obvious connection to April 1st.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:30 pm

British Calendar Change

The calendar-change hypothesis is more plausible if applied to Britain, because it was

the British, not the French, who observed New Year’s Day on March 25 (the date of the

christian Feast of Annunciation), followed by a week of festivities culminating on April 1.

In fact, the earliest version of the calendar-change hypothesis to be found in print,

dating from 1766, does place the argument in a British context. A correspondent to the

Gentleman’s Magazine in April 1766 wrote:

“The strange custom prevalent throughout this kingdom, of people making fools of one

another upon the first of April, arose from the year formerly beginning, as to some

purpose, and in some respects, on the twenty-fifth of March, which was supposed to be

the incarnation of our Lord; it being customary with the Romans, as well as with us, to

hold a festival, attended by an octave, at the commencement of the new year—which

festival lasted for eight days, whereof the first and last were the principal; therefore the

first of April is the octave of the twenty-fifth of March, and, consequently, the close or

ending of the feast, which was both the festival of the Annunciation and the beginning of

the new year.”

Britain only changed the start of its calendar year to January 1 in 1752. By this time April

Fool’s Day was already a well-established tradition. So confusion about the calendar

change could not have been responsible for the origin of the custom in Britain. But it is

possible, as the correspondent to Gentleman’s Magazine speculated, that the festival

held on April 1 (the “octave” of the March 25th calendar year change) evolved into April

Fool’s Day. However, this is pure speculation, undermined by the lack of any other

compelling evidence that the custom originated in Britain. The earliest unambiguous

references to April Fool’s Day actually come from continental Europe, suggesting it is

there that April Fool’s Day began.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:31 pm

Early References

Pre-eighteenth century references to April Fool’s Day provide clues about where the

custom originated. Unfortunately, many of these references are ambiguous, and their

significance is difficult to determine.

1392: Chaucer
What is possibly the first reference to April Fool’s Day can be found in the work of

Chaucer. Unfortunately, the reference is so ambiguous as to be worthless as historical


In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (written around 1392), Chaucer tells the story of the vain cock

Chauntecler who falls for the tricks of a fox, and as a consequence is almost eaten. The

narrator describes the tale as occurring:

When that the monthe in which the world bigan
That highte March, whan God first maked man,
Was complet, and passed were also
Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two

This passage has caused enormous confusion among Chaucer scholars, since it appears

to be self-contradictory. Does it mean the events occur thirty-two days (“thritty dayes

and two”) after March “was complet” (i.e. May 3), or thirty-two days “Syn March bigan”

(since March began), i.e. April 1? If the latter interpretation is correct, the tale takes

place on April Fool’s Day, which seems appropriate for a story of a foolish cock and sly

fox. Could Chaucer have chosen this date purposefully, setting the tale on April 1st

because of the tradition of tricks and foolery associated with the day?

Most editors of Chaucer don’t think so. The most popular interpretation of this passage is

that Chaucer meant May 3, so editors often change the text to read “Syn March [was

gon]”. However, the historian Peter Travis has argued that Chaucer did not intend to

provide a precise date at all, but was instead purposefully using confusing language in

order to parody the language of Medieval philosophy.

Whatever Chaucer may have meant, we can’t conclude, based on these few lines, that

he was aware of a custom of playing pranks on April 1st.

1508: Eloy d’Amerval
The next possible reference to April Fool’s Day we find is in a 1508 poem written by Eloy

d’Amerval, a French choirmaster and composer. The poem is titled Le livre de la

deablerie. According to Wikipedia, it consists of “a dialogue between Satan and Lucifer,

in which their nefarious plotting of future evil deeds is interrupted periodically by the

author, who among other accounts of earthly and divine virtue, records useful

information on contemporary musical practice.”

The poem would only be of interest to historians of music, except that it includes the

line, “maquereau infâme de maint homme et de mainte femme, poisson d’avril.”

The phrase “poisson d’avril” (April Fish) is the French term for an April Fool, but it is

unclear whether d’Amerval’s use of the term referred to April 1st specifically. He might

have intended the phrase simply to mean a foolish person.

1539: Eduard de Dene
The Flemish writer Eduard De Dene published a comical poem in 1539 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. The poem is titled “Refereyn vp

verzendekens dach / Twelck den eersten April te zyne plach.” This is late medieval

Dutch meaning (roughly) “Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April.” In the

closing line of each stanza, the servant says, “I am afraid… that you are trying to make

me run a fool’s errand.” (Thanks to Marco Langbroek for the Dutch translation.)

At last, what we have here is a fairly clear reference to a custom of playing practical

jokes on April 1st. So we can say that April Fool’s Day dates back at least to the

sixteenth century. Because of this reference (and the other, vague French reference),

historians believe that April Fool’s Day must have originated in continental northern

Europe and then spread to Britain.

1632: Escape of the Duke of Lorraine
According to legend, the Duke of Lorraine and his wife were imprisoned at Nantes. They

escaped on April 1, 1632 by disguising themselves as peasants and walking through the

front gate. Someone noticed them escaping and told the guards. But the guards

believed the warning to be a “poisson d’Avril” (or April Fool’s Day joke) and laughed at it,

thus allowing the Duke and his wife to escape.

It is not known if any part of this legend is true.

1686: John Aubrey
The English antiquarian John Aubrey collected many notes about popular customs and

superstitions, as research for a contemplated work to be titled, Remains of Gentilism and

Judaism. In 1686 he wrote, “Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it

is kept in Germany everywhere.” The collected notes were published posthumously.

So by the late seventeenth century, April Fool’s Day had definitely spread to Britain.

1698: Washing the Lions
The April 2, 1698 edition of Dawks’s News-Letter (a British newspaper) reported that

“Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see

the Lions washed.” Sending gullible victims to the Tower of London to see the “washing

of the lions” (a non-existent ceremony) was a popular prank. It became traditional for

this prank to be played on April Fool’s Day. Examples of it occur as late as the mid-

nineteenth century. For more about the history of this prank, see the article: Washing

the Lions.

In the eighteenth century written references to April Fool’s Day became numerous and

appeared throughout Europe.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:32 pm

Renewal Festivals

Almost every culture in the world has some kind of festival in the first months of the year

to celebrate the end of winter and the return of spring. Anthropologists call these

“renewal festivals.” Often they involve ritualized forms of mayhem and misrule. The

wearing of disguises is common. People play pranks on friends and strangers. The social

order is temporarily inverted. Servants might get to order around masters, or children

challenge the authority of parents and teachers. However, the disorder is always

bounded within a strict timeframe, and tensions are defused with laughter and comedy.

The social order is symbolically challenged, but then restored, reaffirming the stability of

the society, just as the cold months of winter temporarily challenge biological life, and

yet the cycle of life continues, returning with the spring.

April Fool’s Day has all the characteristics of a renewal festival. For one day forms of

behavior that are normally not allowed (lying, deception, playing pranks) become

acceptable, and yet the disorder is bounded within a strict timeframe. Traditionally, no

pranks are supposed to be played after 12 o’clock noon of the first. Social hierarchies

and tensions are exposed, but hostility is defused with laughter.

For as long as people have been speculating about April Fool’s Day, they have noticed

the similarities between it and other springtime “renewal” festivals. Many historians have

theorized that April Fool’s Day evolved directly out of some such festival practiced in

ancient times. A direct connection between April Fool’s Day and any of the Roman-era

festivals seems unlikely, though it is quite possible that the tradition evolved out of a

medieval festival held around the time of the Vernal equinox (such as the New Year’s

festivals at the end of March, as discussed above). Nevertheless, there is no agreement

about which festival the tradition of April Foolery developed out of. Below is a list of

some of the festivals that have most frequently been suggested as its forerunners.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:33 pm

The Saturnalia

The Saturnalia, by Antoine-François Callet The Saturnalia was a Roman winter festival

observed at the end of December. It involved dancing, drinking, and general

merrymaking. People exchanged gifts, slaves were allowed to pretend that they ruled

their masters, and a mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps (or Lord of Misrule), reigned

for the day. By the fourth century AD the Saturnalia had transformed into a January 1

New Year’s Day celebration, and many of its traditions were incorporated into the

observance of Christmas.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:34 pm

In late March the Romans honored the resurrection of Attis, son of the Great Mother

Cybele, with the Hilaria celebration. This involved rejoicing and the donning of disguises.

Further afield in India, there was Holi, known as the festival of color, during which street

celebrants threw colored powder and water at each other. This holiday was held on the

full-moon day of the Hindu month of Phalguna (usually the end of February or the

beginning of March).

Festival of Lud
Northern Europeans observed an ancient festival to honor Lud, a Celtic god of humor.

There were also popular Northern European customs that made sport of the hierarchy of

the Druids.

Feast of Fools
The medieval Festus Fatuorum (Feast of Fools) evolved out of the Saturnalia. On this day

celebrants elected a Lord of Misrule and parodied church rituals, often in extremely

blasphemous ways. The Church condemned the custom, but had little luck eradicating it

despite frequent decrees forbidding it. It endured from the fifth century until the

sixteenth century.

Regional British Festivals
Some festivals practiced in regions of Britain during the Middle Ages have similarities to

April Fool’s Day. Hoke-Tide (or Hock-Tide) was celebrated around Easter. Men and

women would stop strangers of the opposite sex on the roads and tie them up, only

untying them in return for money, which was to be used for a pious purpose. Various

rowdy games would also be played. Shig-Shag (or Shick-Shack) Day was observed on

May 20. Celebrants placed sprigs of apple oak in their hats or lapels. This was

supposedly done to demonstrate loyalty to the monarchy, since Charles II was said to

have hidden in an Oak Apple tree to escape the forces of Cromwell. However, the

tradition probably had roots in pagan tree-worship customs. Anyone not wearing the

oak might be accosted and mocked, but only until noon. After noon the obligation to

“have shig-shag” ceased.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:35 pm

Mythological Origins

Scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, suspecting April Fool’s Day to be of

great antiquity, occasionally tried to locate its origins in ancient mythology. Such theories

never found wide acceptance, but they’re included here since they were so often raised

in discussions of April Fool’s Day.

Roman Mythology
In Roman mythology Pluto, the God of the Dead, abducted Proserpina and brought her

to live with him in the underworld. Proserpina called out to her mother Ceres (the

Goddess of grain and the harvest) for help, but Ceres, who could only hear the echo of

her daughter’s voice, searched in vain for Proserpina. Some scholars theorized that the

fruitless search of Ceres for her daughter (commemmorated during the Roman festival of

Cerealia) was the mythological antecedent of the fool’s errands popular on April 1st.

Christian Mythology
It was once popular to christianize April Fool’s Day by locating its origin in Biblical

traditions. For instance, the tradition was attributed to Noah’s mistake of sending a dove

out from the ark before the flood waters had subsided (thereby sending the dove on a

fool’s errand). A second story suggests that the day commemorates the time when Jesus

was sent from Pilate to Herod and back again. The phrase “Sending a man from Pilate to

Herod” (an old term for sending someone on a fool’s errand) was often pointed to as

proof of this origin theory.
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PostSubject: Re: APRIL FOOLS DAY   Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:36 pm

National Origin Theories

There are theories of the origin of April Fool’s Day specific to Great Britain, Germany, the

Netherlands, and France. None of these theories offers a compelling explanation of the

day’s origin. However, it is a sign of the cross-cultural nature of the tradition that four

different countries should attempt to take credit for it.

The French origin theory (the calendar-change hypothesis) was discussed above. It

alleges that the custom originated when King Charles IX reformed the calendar, moving

the start of the year from April 1 to January 1. People who continued to celebrate New

Years on April 1 were mocked and had pranks played on them, thus initiating the custom

of April 1st foolery. This has become, worldwide, the most popular theory of the origin of

April Fool’s Day, despite its flaws.

The French also have a theory that traces the origin of the custom back to the

abundance of fish to be found in French streams and rivers during early April when the

young fish had just hatched. These young fish were easy to fool with a hook and lure.

Therefore, the French called them ‘Poisson d’Avril’ or ‘April Fish.’ Soon it became

customary (according to this theory) to fool people on April 1, as a way of celebrating

the abundance of foolish fish. The French still use the term ‘Poisson d’Avril’ to describe

April Fool’s Day pranks. They also observe the custom of giving each other chocolate fish

on April 1.

Great Britain

In this 1630 woodcut, a citizen of Gotham is shown trying to trap a bird inside a roofless

fence. British folklore links April Fool’s Day to the town of Gotham, the legendary town of

fools located in Nottinghamshire. According to the legend, it was traditional in the 13th

century for any road that the King placed his foot upon to become public property. So

when the citizens of Gotham heard that King John planned to travel through their town,

they refused him entry, not wishing to lose their main road. When the King heard this,

he sent soldiers to the town. But when the soldiers arrived in Gotham, they found the

town full of lunatics engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish or attempting to

cage birds in roofless fences. Their foolery was all an act, but the King fell for the ruse

and declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment. Ever since then, according to

legend, April Fool’s Day has commemmorated their trickery.

On April 1, 1530 a meeting of lawmakers was supposed to occur in Augsburg in order to

consider various financial matters. Because of time considerations, the meeting did not

take place. But numerous speculators, who had bet on the meeting occurring, lost their

money and were ridiculed. This is said to have been the origin of the tradition of playing

pranks on April 1.

The Netherlands
On April 1, 1572 Dutch rebels captured the town of Den Briel from Spanish troops led by

Lord Alva. This military success eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands

from Spain. A Dutch rhyme goes: “Op 1 april / Verloor Alva zijn Bril.” This translates to:

“On April 1st / Alva lost his ‘glasses’”. “Bril” means glasses in Dutch, but is also a pun on

the name of the town, Den Briel. It is claimed that the tradition of pranks on April 1st

arose to commemorate the victory in Den Briel and humiliation of the Spanish
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