April Fool's Day - that wonderful time when children and adults alike can play the prankster and get away with it! April Fool's is an irreverent, happy holiday, falling at just the right time to relieve some of the tension of the moons just past.
Although its origins are obscure, there is general agreement among folklorists that April Fool's Day is probably associated with the feast of the Vernal Equinox, which was New Year's Day on the old Julian calendar system. "An octave, or eight days, used to complete the festivals of our forefathers, and since New Year's Day was commonly kept on March 25, the first of April marked the close of the octave." (McNeill, 52)
The fact that the April Fool's activities are attached to a date in spring falling close to the Vernal Equinox, and that, at least a couple of centuries ago, the festivities had to cease at a fixed hour (12:00 noon), "suggests that their roots lie deep down in something more than mere outbursts of exuberance. In spirit they are akin to those licensed buffooneries, jests, and extravagances that were once associated with certain religious festivals, like the Saturnalia of ancient Rome, or the mediaeval Feast of Fools, or Feast of Asses. At such festivals, the utmost freedom of speech and action was tolerated, with open mockery of respected persons and institutions, and even burlesques of sacred ceremonies. These odd and often unedifying antics may have been survivals of very ancient rituals, but it was a deep-seated human instinct that made and kept them popular." (Hole, 22)
Indeed, the medieval Feast of Fools, which occurred around New Year's (celebrated, coincidentally, at the end of March), "...was like a religious chimney sweeping, brushing away the year's repressed and hidden blasphemy, in a riot of filth and irreligion." (Taylor, 91) After the Feast of Fools was suppressed in the late Middle Ages, the European follies shifted to the eve of Lent and became Mardi Gras and Carnival. (Fuller, 20)
April Fooling may also have come from India, where the Hindus have had an identical festival for centuries in their Feast of Huli. On March 31, people are sent in all directions on fool's errands. Similar customs are found in China and Japan. (McNeill, 52) And Ralph Whitlock suggests April Fooling may be connected with Lud, a Celtic god of humor, whose ancient festival was celebrated around this date. (Whitlock, 52)
Customs of France
April Fooling became popular in France after the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1564, which made the year begin on January 1. Under the old style calendar, the year ended with March, and people traditionally exchanged new year's gifts and visits on April 1. Seeing that conservative people objected to the change in habits, Wags (an old word meaning playful or mischievous person) sent these people mock gifts on April 1 and made calls of pretended ceremony. (Douglas, 199)
In France people were also sent on Fool's errands: an unsuspecting messenger was sent to the dairy for a bottle of pigeon's milk, or a couple of boys to the saddler's with a request for some good strong strapping, which they would receive across the shoulders. Other requests were for a pennyworth of strap-oil or elbow grease, or some other non-existent commodity. "Apprentices and juniors in factories and offices are despatched by their straight-faced elders to buy a pot of striped paint, or a soft-pointed chisel, or a box of straight hooks," (Hole, 21) or sent for a 'long stand' - only to be told 'you can stand there as long as you like!'
It was not until the beginning of the 18th century that April fooling became common in England. (Douglas, 199) Similar tricks were played there, and "it was at one time no uncommon thing to see in the streets of London several gentlemen, each with a ticket marked 'April Fool' on his back, all laughing covertly at one another." (McNeill, 52)
It is recorded in Drake's News-Letter for April 2, 1698, that a number of people received invitations to see the lions washed at the Tower of London on April 1st, and duly went there for that purpose. Precisely the same trick was played by some unknown person with equal success in 1860. (Hole, 21)
Children have always been strong supporters of April Fool's day, with a large repertoire of tricks and jokes. "Most of their tricks are far from original, and many have been used so often that they have now become traditional, yet they succeed again and again, and will probably go on doing so for a long time to come." (Hole, 21) One of the favorites is to tell someone his shoe is untied, or his tie is crooked, or that something else is wrong with his dress; when in fact all is in order. When he checks out the 'problem,' the children joyously shout 'April Fool.'
One tradition that did not seem to hold up till the present day, but was strongly adhered to in the past, was that April Fool's day started at midnight, and always ended promptly at noon. If anyone attempted a trick thereafter, the intended victim retorted:
April Fooling was probably introduced by France into Scotland, where it is known as 'hunting the Gowk,' and children shout 'Gowk, gowk!' at their victims. April Fool's Day is there called Gowkin' Day. (McNeill, 52)
" 'What compound interest is to simple addition,' writes Chambers in his Book of Days, `so is Scottish to English fooling' (McNeill, 53, quoting from Robert Chambers' Book of Days)." Not being content to make someone believe a single piece of absurdity, some poor fool is sent out on a Gowk's errand. The victim is sent away with a note supposedly asking for some item, but in reality containing only the words,
The recipient of this note, with a grave face, tells the victim that he doesn't have such an article, but if the victim will go to so-and-so's with the note, only another mile away, surely he will find it. Off he goes, only to be told the same thing by the next person. He goes on, hunting the gowk another mile, then another; till finally he realizes what is happening, or some tender- hearted person tells him. ``A successful affair of this kind will keep rustic society in merriment for a week, during which honest Andrew Wilson hardly can show his face" (McNeill, 53, quoting from Robert Chambers' Book of Days).
In Scotland, the word `Gowk' means both fool and cuckoo. April 1, Old Style, fell on what is now April 13, and it is usually in the second week of April that the cuckoo utters its first note. People associated the cuckoo with folly a trait probably transferred from the cuckoo's victim, as in the word `cuckold,' and it may be this way that the term gowk became associated with the victim of April fooling. (McNeill, 53)
At Mere, in the south-west corner of Wiltshire, England, there used to be a `Cuckowe King,' apparently elected annually to preside at a `Church Ale' at this season. And in Somerset, the folklore is full of references to `cuckoo pennings' with vague meanings. (Whitlock, 53)
"One theory advanced is that the 'cuckoo' in many of the old traditions is not the bird but the Britons of the Dark Ages. These Celts were derisively termed 'cuckoos,' meaning nincompoops, by the advancing Saxons, largely because they were too stupid to understand the Saxon language, as any normally bright person would do with ease! The 'cuckoo pen' legends usually refer to places of ancient origin with at least the traces of a fortified earthwork, so it can be assumed that this was where the invaders managed to get those British cuckoos penned." (Whitlock, 53)
The symbol behind this holiday, the April Fool, seems to be one of the last survivors of the ancient figure of Folly, who appears capering round the English Morris dancers and in the medieval mummer's plays. The Fool, by his very nature, is not content to simply be associated with April Fool's Day. He is the medieval court jester, skilled in juggling, tumbling, and `playing the fool'; the 18th century Harlequin, with his distinctive garb of multicolored diamonds and triangles; and the circus clown of the early 1800's, in his wild face paint and androgynous costume, forever the victim. But don't be `fooled' - Shakespeare writes of `wise fools' who challenged and advised their kings; and the Irish bards, whose counsel was respected and their satire feared by Irish chieftans, were sometimes called `fools' in ancient Celtic tales. (Fuller, 20)
Douglas, George William. The American Book of Days. H.W. Wilson Co., New York, 1948.
Fuller, Fred. The Fool-The Clown-The Jester, Gnosis Magazine, Spring 1991, pp. 16-21.
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. Hutchinson & Co., London, 1976.
McNeill, F. Marian. The Silver Bough, vol. 2 - A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals.
William MacLellan, Glasgow, England, 1959.
Taylor, Rogan. The Death and Resurrection Show. Anthony Blond, London, 1985.
Whitlock, Ralph. A Calendar of Country Customs. B.T. Batsford, Ltd., London, 1978.
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