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The Origin of April Fools - Nobody Really Knows How April Fools’ Day Started

Apr 01, 2021 05:25PM ● By Kaitlyn Malone
The tradition of April Fools Day has a vast history and is widely spread throughout the world. However, nobody really knows how April Fools’ Day started and became such a widely held custom. Even in 1708, a letter to Britain’s Apollo Magazine asked, “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” (www.rd.com/article/origin-of-april-fools-day/). There is a long history of April 1st references and some interesting traditions from all around the globe to commemorate the day. Here are some explanations as to the origin of April Fools’ Day as well as some of the earliest pranks that have helped integrate the day into our culture.

One likely origin of April Fool’s Day is based on the Medieval Feast of Fools held on or around January 1st. During the Middle Ages at this feast a mock bishop or pope was elected while officials of high and low status could change places. This is very similar to the Roman festival of Hilaria, which is a spring festival that fell around March 25th. This day was to honor the vernal equinox when festivities, games, and masquerades would be held. During this festival, commoners could imitate nobility. Breaking the rules of class and rank for fun, games, and mischievous ends for a day certainly carries the theme of what we think of April Fools today. (www.britannica.com/topic/Feast-of-Fools).

Another explanation and possible link is that in 1582 France and surrounding areas switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar and some people didn’t get the message. The New Year became January 1st instead of April 1st. The people that continued to celebrate the “New Year” on April 1st instead of in January were then thought of as fools and became the but of jokes and hoaxes. (todayinhistory.blog/2017/04/01/april-1-1698-washing-the-lions/). This could have been done with sentiments carried over from the Hilaria festivities, or it could have been separate. We can’t know for sure.

One of the earliest documented references of April Fool’s Day was dated 1561 at which time a Flemish writer called Eduard De Dene published a comical poem about a nobleman who sends his servant back and forth on ridiculous errands on April 1st. This seems to be the first obvious reference to a custom of playing practical jokes on the first day of April. Sending someone on a “fools’ errand” and being goaded into a pointless situation for the instigators' amusement is a tradition that is alive and well today. Because of the date and origin of this poem, historians think this tradition might have originated in northern Europe and spread to the British Isles. (hoaxes.org/af_database/permalink/eduard_de_dene)

On April Fools’ Day in 1698, a paper called Dawk’s News-Letter describes a prank in which hundreds of people were fooled into showing up at the Tower of London to see “The Washing of the Lions” when in fact there was no such event happening and no lions to be washed. This prank continued every year and became more elaborate as tickets were even printed to give admittance to the annual “Washing of the Lions''! By the 19th-century other “standard” April Fool’s Day tricks began to be more prevalent. These included putting a brick inside a hat and leaving it on the sidewalk so if someone kicked it they would stub their toe. (I guess hats on the ground were a thing back then?) Another was to tie a string to a wallet and leave it on the ground for someone to pick up, but pull it out of their reach when they came close! Those are a bit vintage but they are akin to the “saran wrap on the toilet seat” pranks of today (blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2016/03/april-fools/).

Regardless of where it came from, April Fool’s Day has brought enormous levity to our society for years and will for years to come. Today, April Fools day is definitely a day where we test each other and is a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. We are tricked and take delight in tricking others, to ideally well-intentioned ends. It’s a day to take a break from the expected norms of the every day, surprise ourselves, and hopefully at the end of it all, have a laugh!


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