Each year on April 1st, many cultures across the world recognize April Fool’s day as one of light-hearted comedy and prank playing. We have our fun, but if you ask the everyday person of the origin of the event, most wouldn’t likely know. Truth be told, April Fool’s day is like so many other celebrations. Solid proof of an exact origin is shrouded in mystery.
April Fool’s Day Theories
There are many theories, none of which seem to hold a stronger claim than any of the others. One of the oldest theories is that it evolved from the ancient Roman celebration of Hilaria, which translates to ‘joyful’ or ‘the cheerful one,” depending on the interpretation of old Latin. A Hilaria celebration took place around the March equinox (March 25th), to honor Cybele, one of the Anatolian mother Goddesses. It was considered a time of great merriment and enjoyment. During the reign of the fourth emperor of Rome, Claudius who rules from AD 41 to 54, the cult of Cybele spread throughout Rome. One the celebration day, public games, masquerades, and a general environment of revelry took hold of the citizenry. Also, Roman citizens were free to make fun of their friends and family members, without actual insult or offense. Many researchers see this as the origin of making practical jokes on April Fool’s day.
A closely related theory, yet one with lesser recognition is also connected to the Spring equinox. Some believed it was connected to recognizing the start of Spring so early in the year. This was especially obvious in places when snowfall and winter weather would continue to occur for weeks, possibly months. It was believed that Mother Nature would ‘fool’ the mortals with unexpected changes in the weather.
Another theory is that April Fool’s day evolved from a very specific time, 1582 to be exact. That was the year France permanently changed from the traditional Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, or Christian calendar. The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE, and despite being similar, was considered a pagan calendar. The Julian calendar’s formula to calculate leap years produced a leap year every four years, which would put important Christian holiday’s out of sync with important astronomical events such as the solstices.
The new year of the Julian Calendar began with the spring equinox, while the Gregorian calendar had the new year on January 1st. In the years following the change, anyone who continued to celebrate the new year in the period between the Spring equinox until April 1st, was ridiculed, and became the butt of pranks, trickery, and jokes. Some say they were called, “April Fool’s.”
How April Fool’s Day Evolved to Modern Times
The earliest know reference to anything close to April Fool’s day can be found in a 1561 poem by Eduard De Dene. De Dene was a Flemish poet who wrote about the joy he garnered from sending his servant on a series of unnecessary tasks, which gave rise to the term “fools errands.” It’s not definitive to relate the event, but does lay some of the groundwork for other theories.
There’s really not a lot of documentation on how the tradition continued from ancient times, to modern times. One tale comes from Scotland from sometime in the 1700s. The stories tell of an event called “hunting the gowk.” Gowk is a colloquialism for a cuckoo, or a fool. During this revelry, people would do all sorts of childish things, such as pinning signs on people’s back, similar to the ‘kick me’ tales of our youth. Another practice was sending people on wild goose chases. This is also a consideration for the origins of the modern day ‘snipe hunting.’
The practice of practical joking became a staple in the British Empire and spread to the American colonies, across Canada, and anywhere else the Empire had a stake. In the 1950’s the pranks grew wilder and bolder, often with credible media outlets being pranked. One notable incident occurred in 1957, when the BBC was tricked into reporting the ‘record spaghetti crop’ grown in Switzerland that year. The ruse went so far as to include footage of people harvesting long noodles from trees.
But it wasn’t always the media that was the butt of the joke. In 1985 George Plimpton, a copywriter for the magazine Sport’s Illustrated, turned the tables with a fabricated article about a rookie baseball pitcher named Sidd Finch who was wowing crowds with his 168 miles per hour, fastball.
Throughout the 1990s many companies jumped on the April Fool’s day bandwagon. These include a unique, left-handed Whopper sandwich by the fast food chain, Burger King. Also a false report by Taco Bell that they purchased the iconic Liberty Bell, and renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell. Another memorable 1990s hoax was when an actor portrayed former President Richard Nixon, who had been forced to resign from the presidency years early, announcing his comeback.
With little known about the period between ancient Rome and 1582, it’s difficult to say if April Fool’s day had pagan origin or not. Evidence does show that the Romans and Greeks both had celebrations focused on fun, pranks, and practical joking. Evidence also shows that Christianity ‘borrowed’ many of their traditions and holidays from pagan practices. Yet, unlike the arguments over Christmas or Easter origins, there’s little concern by anyone to make a specific claim about April Fool’s day. It seems fun, laughter, and a few practical jokes are all that you need to rise above the triviality of arguments.
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