April Fools Day

April Fools Day 

April Fools Day has a more serious history than readers might imagine. April 1st is widely regarded the world over as they day on which people play practical jokes on one another in the hope of labelling the victim ‘April Fool’. The earliest alleged recorded association between April 1st and ‘April Fool’ is in 1392. But it’s a somewhat uncertain reference in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. On the other hand many historians suggest that April Fools’ Day is connected with Pope Gregory XIII’s restoration in the 16th Century of January 1st as the designated New Year’s Day for his self styled Gregorian Calendar. In countries as diverse as Belgium, France and Italy, adults and children traditionally pin paper fishes to each other’s backs and shout ‘April Fish’, in their local languages. This hilarious pursuit goes back at least as far as the 16th Century. Such fish appeared regularly on late 19th and early 20th Century April Fools’ Day (or April Fish Day), postcards

 Genuine Doughnut Seeds to be planted on April Fools’ Day

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When did April Fools’ Day Start

Forerunners of April Fools’ Day are thought to include The Medieval ‘Feast of Fools’ (celebrated on December 28th) and the Roman (aptly named) festival of ‘Hilaria’. The goddess ‘Hilaria’s blessing was invoked to rubber stamp a festival at the end of March when all and sundry indulged in horse play. This does appear to be have been an excuse to have a bit of fun at the end of the gloomy (by Italian Standards),  winter and early spring months. Apparently in this early variant of April Fools’ Day people were encouraged to do as hey liked and even, to impersonate whoever they liked including magistrates and other important pubic officials. Whether this festival has even the remotest connection with an April Fools’ Day type tradition is doubtful. It seems to have been more like a raucous carnival.  The ‘Feast of Fools’ however is more like it and is still an occasion  on which April Fools’ Day, type pranks are played out in Spanish Speaking Countries. No doubt the pranks liven up the lull between Christmas and the New Year. The alleged link between April Fools’ Day in England and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is somewhat contrived and complicated. The ‘Nun’s Priest Tale’, (in which ‘chanticleer’ the ‘vain cock’ (chicken) was tricked by a fox). And from which the tradition of April Fools’ Day is said by some to derive, is set ‘Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two’. Modern Chaucer enthusiasts however believe that there was a transcription or copying error and what Chaucer really wrote was ‘Syn March was gon’. For those unable to appreciate this obvious medieval subtleties the difference might need explaining. The ‘incorrect’ passage is now thought to have actually meant ’32 Days after April’ (that being May 2nd) which was the anniversary of the engagement in 1381 of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. But readers at the time misunderstood the line to mean ‘March 32ndwhich does not exist, and so was thought to be a medieval attempt at a ‘joke’. The correct date in the circumstances would be April 1st.

 Chanticleer the April Fool’s Day Cock

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How this elaborate series of misunderstandings and misinterpretation of Chaucer translates into a theory for the origin of April Fools’ Day is not clear. The period in history was only a few decades after the Black Death had decimated England so perhaps this was the closest thing to a joke that anyone could muster. After all, the other remaining high point of the age was a celebration of the engagement of Richard II (and unpopular King whom most people had not seen) and Anne of Bohemia, a person and country of whom virtually no one had heard of. It was hardly in the Prince William and Kate class.

April Fish and other April Fools’ Day customs

What is more plausible is that the continental ‘April Fish’ variation of April Fools’ Day can be reliably dated at least as far back  the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th Century. French Poet ‘Eloy d’Amerval’ mentioned ‘poisson d’avril’ (April Fish), and the mention may be a reference to the present fish based custom. In 1539 another Flemish poet, Eduard de Dene referred to some nobleman who sent his servants on wild goose chases on April 1st. But the first reliable British reference is by John Aubrey (Wiltshire biographer, antiquary and author). In a 1686 text Aubrey referred to the occasion which we now call ‘April Fools’ Day’ as ‘Fooles Holy Day’. By 1698 April Fools Day must have been well established in its present form in England when several people were tricked into attending an April Fools’ Day event at the Tower of London ‘to see the Lions being washed’. 

April Fools’ Day 1698 ‘Lion Washing’ Jape

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In the Middle Ages up until the 1700s, New Year Day was on March 25th (the Feast of Annunciation). In parts of France the March 25th New Year was a week long holiday custom concluding on April 1st. But by the middle of the 16th century (1564) January 1st was adopted as New Years Day by virtue of the ‘Edict of Roussillon’, leading to one theory is that April Fools Day originated because those who adopted January 1st as the New Year made fun of those who continued to recognise and celebrate April 1st and any other date.

April Fools’ Day Customs

In the UK the hilarious climax of an April Fools’ Day joke, is the moment when the unfortunate victim is subjected to the taunt of ‘April Fool’. He then becomes the ‘April Fool’. In the 1950’s folklorists Peter and Iona Opie made an in depth study of April Fools’ Day  customs and found that in the UK if someone played a trick after mid day, the perpetrator would be said to become an ‘April Fool’ himself. This protocol however appears to have gone into decline in recent years. In Scotland April Fools’ Day used to be known as ‘Hunt-the-Gowk Day’,‘Gowk’ being Scottish for a foolish person or a ‘cuckoo’. This title however has fallen into disuse and ‘April Fools’ Day’ is now thought appropriate. The traditional Scottish wheeze was to ask someone to deliver a sealed letter containing a message asking for help of some sort but the message really read ‘Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile. The recipient having read it would say that he can only help if he consults another person first and would send the victim on to that person with the same message with the same result. By falling for this North of the Border April Fools’ Day jape the victim would become a ‘gowk’

Early April Fools Day Fun


In Iran April Fools’ Day type jokes are played on Nowruz, the 13th Day of the Persian New Year which falls either on April 1st or April 2nd. The event is called ‘Sizdah Bedar’ and is the oldest surviving April Fools’ Day type prankster day in the world going back as far as 536BC. This fact has led some to regards that practice as having been the origin of the April Fools’ Day tradition. The continental ’April Fish’ tradition also has a number of its own variants to offer some relief from merely pinning paper fish on victims’ backs. In Italy the term ‘Pesce d’aprile’ (April’s Fish) is now used to describe any joke (including non fish related ones) done on the day what we in Britain would call April Fools’ Day. There is also a Flemish tradition where children lock their teachers and parents out and only let them back in if they bring treats that evening or the next day.

Leopold I succumbs to April Fools Day demands

In Poland April 1st is not merely an April Fools; Day, it’s a full day of hilarity. Jokes and hoaxes are prepared by people and the media and even by public bodies. This tradition is so strong that an anti Turkish alliance with Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary and Bulgaria had to be backdated to March 31st although it had been signed on April 1st. In 1957 the BBC got in on the April Fools’ Day  act. It broadcast a feature known as the ‘Swiss Spaghetti Harvest’. The prank involved a film showing Swiss farmers gathering freshly grown spaghetti. The BBC were inundated with requests to purchase a spaghetti plant and had to admit that the film had been an April Fools’ Day prank. At the time most people in Britain and in particular those excluded from the circles of the metropolitan elite who ran the BBC had little idea how spaghetti was actually made. Some had no doubt only seen the delicacy   on photos and on Fanny Craddock’s TV cookery extravaganzas. Given that the viewers pay for the BBC licence fee and the BBC staff, this incident was a rare instance of victims paying their hired help to condescend and laugh at them. Lucky the British have a sense of humour and took the April Fools’ Day prank in good spirits