It’s the most lighthearted day of the year – and the only one when you are officially allowed to tell a lie and deceive – for the sake of a joke! So be on your guard!
When did it all began? Well, according to Boston University’s Professor Emeritus of History, Joseph Boskin, it all began with the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was told one day by his court jesters that they could run the country so much better than the Emperor if only they were given a chance. Constantine decided to grant one of them a single day as Emperor. When asked his one-day title, the jester appointed to the office chose “King Kugel”- and his first and lasting contribution to humanity was to declare this day – April 1 by the modern calendar – the day of absurdities. Or so the tale goes – and what an April Fools tale it was!!! Here more about this academic joke.
The origin of this day is, in fact, unknown, yet several explanations have been offered, each plausible enough though not 100% satisfactory as all fall short of explaining the fact that a number of countries have long been celebrating this fools’ day with no apparent link to one another.
One such explanation harks back to the 16th century: In 1564, France reformed its calendar (correcting a noticeable seasonal dissynchronisation by royal decree even before Pope Gregory’s reform was announced in 1582-see 29 February), moving the end of March (then considered the beginning of the New Year) to January 1. Although the population is said to have been informed about it, quite a number of people did not know about or refused to accept as new year’s beginning “January 1”, to them it continued to be “April 1” – they were the first to be called ‘April fools’ and often had a fish attached to their back in consequence (in France April fools are called poissons d’avril).
Another explanation refers to the long Judeo-Christian tradition of “holy fools”, mentioned variably in the holy books, sometimes implying the Christian martyr, or referring to sayings that only ‘children and fools’ can enter heaven without difficulty, or that the wordly wise have to renounce their wisdom (becoming ‘fools’) to become truly wise. ‘Fools’ or ‘pranksters’ were therefore frequent apparitions at Christian festivals in the Middle Ages.
The heathen tradition of celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring – so-called “renewal festivals” triggered by the equinox when Nature, incidentally, also fools people with unpredictable weather – are likewise mentioned in this connection. It was typical of these rituals that disguised community members created mayhem and confusion, often in open challenge of the traditional order.
Doubtlessly, a day or days for fools as these and similar ones, frequently relating to gods – as the Roman festival Hilaria or the Indian Holi – seem to satisfy a social need of change and renewal, originally tethered to Nature’s cycle of death and rebirth.
The earliest report in England of a practical joke played on the public is from 2 April, 1698, according to which a number of people had been invited to the Tower of London the previous day to attend a ritual washing of the Lions. It became a popular prank repeated up to the late 19th century. By then 1 April pranks had become a common occurrence in countries like Ireland, German-speaking countries, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Italy, and the Nordic countries.
Individual practical jokes may range from sending a person on a ‘fool’s errand’, setting off stink bombs, placing a whoopee cushion on a chair in order to embarrass the person sitting down on it by the farthing sound thus released, to presenting a ‘gift box’ out of which pops some form of a jack-in-the box, surreptiously gluing comic signs on someone’s back or mixing colour in someone’s shampoo. With the growth of the media were added the media pranks – plausible bits of news that sooner or later prove to be hoaxes. One of the most successful in this line was a BBC resport, on 1 April 1957, on the spaghetti tree season: