Basically no one knows exactly where, when, or why the celebration began. What we do know is that references to ‘All Fool’s Day’ (what April Fool’s Day was first called) began to appear in Europe during the late Middle Ages. All Fool’s Day was a folk celebration and elite participation in it was minimal (which is why it’s so difficult to trace the exact origin of the day, because the people celebrating it back then weren’t the kind of people who kept records of what they did). But what is clear is that the tradition of a day devoted to foolery has ancient roots. As we look back in time we find many ancient predecessors of April Fool’s Day.
Throughout antiquity numerous festivals included celebrations of foolery and trickery. The Saturnalia, a Roman winter festival observed at the end of December, was the most important of these. It involved dancing, drinking, and general merrymaking. People exchanged gifts, slaves were allowed to pretend that they ruled their masters, and a mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps (or Lord of Misrule), reigned for the day. By the fourth century AD the Saturnalia had transformed into a January 1 New Year’s Day celebration, and many of its traditions were incorporated into the observance of Christmas.
In late March the Romans honored the resurrection of Attis, son of the Great Mother Cybele, with the Hilaria celebration. This involved rejoicing and the donning of disguises.
Further afield in India there was Holi, known as the festival of color, during which street celebrants threw tinted powders at each other, until everyone was covered in garish colors from head to toe. This holiday was held on the full-moon day of the Hindu month of Phalguna (usually the end of February or the beginning of March).
Northern Europeans observed an ancient festival to honor Lud, a Celtic god of humor. And there were also popular Northern European customs that made sport of the hierarchy of the Druids.
All of these celebrations could have served as precedents for April Fool’s Day.
During the middle ages, a number of celebrations developed which served as direct predecessors to April Fool’s Day. The most important of these was the Festus Fatuorum (the Feast of Fools) which evolved out of the Saturnalia. On this day (mostly observed in France) celebrants elected a mock pope and parodied church rituals. The church, of course, did its best to discourage this holiday, but it lingered on until the sixteenth century. Following the suppression of the Feast of Fools, merrymakers focused their attention on Mardi Gras and Carnival.
There was also the medieval figure of the Fool, the symbolic patron saint of the day. Fools became prominent in late medieval Europe, practicing their craft in a variety of settings such as town squares and royal courts. Their distinctive dress remains well known today: multicolored robe, horned hat, and sceptre and bauble.
There have been quite a few attempts to provide mythological explanations for the rise of April Fool’s Day.
For instance, it was once popular to attempt to christianize the celebration by locating its origin somewhere in Biblical traditions. In one such version, the day’s origin is attributed to Noah’s mistake of sending a dove out from the ark before the flood waters had subsided (thereby sending the dove on a fool’s errand). A second story tells that the day commemorates the time when Jesus was sent from Pilate to Herod and back again. The phrase “Sending a man from Pilate to Herod” (an old term for sending someone on a fool’s errand) was often pointed to as proof of this origin theory.
But there are rival mythological explanations linking the celebration to pagan roots. For instance, April Fool’s Day was often traced back to Roman mythology, particularly the myth of Ceres and Proserpina. In Roman mythology Pluto, the God of the Dead, abducted Proserpina and brought her to live with him in the underworld. Proserpina called out to her mother Ceres (the Goddess of grain and the harvest) for help, but Ceres, who could only hear the echo of her daughter’s voice, searched in vain for Proserpina. The fruitless search of Ceres for her daughter (commemmorated during the Roman festival of Cerealia) was believed by some to have been the mythological antecedent of the fool’s errands popular on April 1st.
British folklore links April Fool’s Day to the town of Gotham, the legendary town of fools located in Nottinghamshire. According to the legend, it was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the King placed his foot upon to become public property. So when the citizens of Gotham heard that King John planned to travel through their town, they refused him entry, not wishing to lose their main road. When the King heard this, he sent soldiers to the town. But when the soldiers arrived in Gotham, they found the town full of lunatics engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish or
attempting to cage birds in roofless fences. Their foolery was all an act, but the King fell for the ruse and declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment. And ever since then, April Fool’s Day has supposedly commemmorated their trickery.
The Calendar-Change Theory
The most widespread theory about the origin of April Fool’s Day involves the Gregorian calendar reform of the late sixteenth century.
The theory goes like this: In 1582 France became the first country to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar established by the Council of Trent (1563). This switch meant, among other things, that the beginning of the year was moved from the end of March to January 1. Those who failed to keep up with the change, who stubbornly clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate the New Year during the week that fell between March 25th (known in England as Lady Day) and April 1st, had various jokes played on them. For instance, pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were given the epithet Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish. Thus, April Fool’s Day was born.
The calendar change hypothesis might provide a reason for why April 1st specifically became the date of the modern holiday. But it is clear that the idea of a springtime festival honoring misrule and mayhem had far more ancient roots. In addition, the process by which the observance of the day spread from France to protestant countries such as Germany, Scotland, and England is left unexplained by this theory. These nations only adopted the calendar change during the eighteenth century, at a time when the tradition of April Foolery had already been well established throughout Europe. Finally, it is not clear what evidence, besides conjecture, supports the theory. For which reason, while there’s certainly a possibility that the calendar-change hypothesis contains a germ of truth, it should not be regarded as fact.
* Jane M. Hatch (ed.). The American Book of Days. New York, 1978. p: 314-316.
* Hennig Cohen and Tristam Potter Coffin (eds.). The Folklore of American Holidays. Gale, 1999. p: 191-193.
* William Walsh. Curiosities of Popular Customs. Philadelphia, 1898. p:58-62.