A Fool’s Errand: Speculating on the Origin of April Fool’s Day

A Fool’s Errand: Speculating on the Origin of April Fool’s Day

The world is full of reasons to be serious. Poverty. Disease. Famine. War. When people have trouble choosing a good reason to be serious, they settle for one of their own. People argue over religion, over politics, over sports, and over nothing at all. And as this contentiousness has taken place throughout recorded history, an annual day of relief from this constant state of sobriety has been a widespread and celebrated tradition.

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Possible Origins

April 1st was close to the New Year in multiple ancient cultures. From ancient Hindus and Romans who celebrated this time as the beginning of the year, to medieval Europe, which celebrated the New Year on March 25th (The Feast of Annunciation), April 1st was long considered the year’s beginning. So one hypothesis as to the origin of April Fool’s Day is that once the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar, those who continued to hold the belief that April 1st was the beginning of a new year were considered fools.

The aforementioned explanation may be foolish in and of itself. The Gregorian calendar wasn’t established in England until 1752, by which time April Fool’s Day had long been an established festivity. Geoffrey Chaucer, also known as the father of English literature, may have inadvertently established April 1st as a fool’s day as early as 1392, after readers misunderstood a passage of the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in his Canterbury Tales.

Additionally, no evidence exists which can substantiate the calendar theory as the day’s true origin. Other attempts at explaining the day have taken the form of April Fool’s jokes themselves, such as an elaborate explanation involving Constantine given by Professor Joseph Boskin of Boston University that duped the Associated Press in 1983.

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While Professor Boskin’s April Fool’s Day prank was manifested in a published newspaper, April Food’s Day pranks in recent years have relied on the Internet to fool the masses. Even various companies will get in on the fun, announcing an outlandish new product or service on their website on April 1st, only to reveal the joke a day or two later. One could argue that pranks once reserved for April Fool’s Day have spread beyond the boundaries of one day thanks to the World Wide Web. Just look at the number of hoaxes and other trickery now spread through email and social media.

April Fool’s Day, or some variation thereof, is celebrated in many locations around the world, but perhaps one of the oldest and most interesting of these is Poisson d’Avril, which in English means, “April Fish.” French children celebrate the first day of April by taping paper fish to the back of schoolmates and others and then shouting, “Poisson d’Avril.” Children in Italy celebrate the first day of April in a similar manner. One theory as to the inclusion of fish in the celebration involves the zodiac sign, Pisces, which is composed of two fish swimming in opposite directions, is the last sign of the zodiac cycle, and occurs from February 19th to March 20th.

Bottom Line

There are multiple theories as to the origin of April Fool’s Day, but not a specific singular event can be referred to definitively. However, an annual day of lighthearted revelry has been celebrated throughout time and across cultures.

Updated April 1, 2016
Originally published June 2014

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Randal A. Burd Jr. is a freelance writer, educator, and poet from Missouri. He is also a Kentucky Colonel and a genealogy enthusiast.

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