1St April – All Fool's Day

in April-fool

The first of April some do say,

Is set apart for All Fool's Day.

But why people call it so,

Nor I nor they themselves do know*

(*Verse recorded in Poor Robin's Almanack in 1760)

Unlike most of the other non foolish holidays, the history of April Fool's Day, sometimes called All Fool's Day, is not totally clear. There really wasn't a ‘first April Fool's Day' that can be pinpointed on the calendar. Some believe it sort of evolved simultaneously in several cultures at the same time, from celebrations involving the first day of spring.

The closest point in time that can be identified as the beginning of this tradition was in 1582, in France. Prior to that year, the new year was celebrated for eight days, beginning on 25 March. The celebration culminated on 1 April. With the reform of the calendar under Charles IX, the Gregorian Calendar was introduced, and New Year's Day was moved to 1 January.

However, communications being what they were in the days when news travelled by foot, many people did not receive the news for several years. Others, the more obstinate crowd, refused to accept the new calendar and continued to celebrate the new year on 1 April. These backward folk were labelled as ‘fools' by the general populace. They were subject to some ridicule, and were often sent on ‘fools errands' or were made the butt of other practical jokes.

This harassment evolved, over time, into a tradition of prank-playing on the first day of April. The tradition eventually spread to England and Scotland in the eighteenth century. It was later introduced to the American colonies of both the English and French. April Fool's Day thus developed into an international fun fest, so to speak, with different nationalities specializing in their own brand of humour at the expense of their friends and families.

In Scotland, for example, April Fool's Day is actually celebrated for two days. The second day is devoted to pranks involving the posterior region of the body. It is called Taily Day. The origin of the ‘kick me' sign can be traced to this observance.

Local names for an April Fool can be found in different parts of the country. In the Lake District you are an April noddy. In Cornwall and the north it is guckaw or gowk – another word for a cuckoo. In Cheshire it is April gawby or gobby or gob.

In France an April Fool is called a fish – poisson d'Avril – and it is the custom to send friends a dainty present made up in the form of a small fish. This takes the sting out of the April Fool teasing.

Mexico's counterpart of April Fool's Day is actually observed on 28 December. Originally, the day was a sad remembrance of the slaughter of the innocent children by King Herod. It eventually evolved into a lighter commemoration involving pranks and trickery.

Practical jokes are a common practice on April Fool's Day. Sometimes, elaborate practical jokes are played on friends or relatives that last the entire day. The news media even gets involved. For instance, a short BBC film once shown on April Fool's Day was a fairly detailed documentary about ‘spaghetti farmers' and how they harvest their crop from the spaghetti trees.

April Fool's Day is a ‘for-fun-only' observance. Nobody is expected to buy gifts or to take their ‘significant other' out to eat in a fancy restaurant. Nobody gets off work or school. But it's a day on which everyone must remain forever vigilant, for they may be the next April Fool!

Further reading: Origins of Festivals and Feasts by Jean Harrowven, Kaye & Ward, 1980.

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1St April – All Fool's Day

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This article was published on 2010/03/26