“APRIL FOOL. Anyone imposed on, or sent on a bootless errand, on the first of April; on which day it is the custom among the lower people, children, and servants, by dropping empty papers, carefully doubled up, sending persons on absurd messages, and such like contrivances, to impose on every one they can and then to salute them with the title of April Fool.”
—Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796
April first is not just Major League Baseball’s opening day, it is also April Fool’s Day. On this day, it is tradition to play practical jokes on others.
It’s commonly thought that the origin of this tradition lies in the change from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. Before Pope Gregory’s calendar reform there was no standard day for marking the New Year. 1 January was the most common day, but other dates were used as well. In Britain and British colonies, the new year began on 25 March (the vernal equinox). The Gregorian Calendar standardized 1 January as the start of the New Year. The new calendar was adopted by Roman Catholic countries beginning in 1582. Britain and the British colonies adopted the new calendar in 1752. Some people did not accept the change and continued to celebrate the New Year on the old date. These people were eventually designated April Fools.
It’s an intriguing idea, but there are some problems with it. First, 1 April was never celebrated as the beginning of the new year. 25 March was, but then we should have “March Fool’s” Day. And in most of Europe, the new year was always celebrated on 1 January. For another, the English celebration of April Fool’s Day dates to the 16th century, two hundred years before the calendar change happened there. Still, this remains the most likely explanation for the practice, despite the problems with the hypothesis.
There are some older traditions that may be the origin of the practice. The mythic Celtic magician Gwydion, conjured an imaginary army on 1 April to fool his sister. The Romans celebrated the festival of Hilaria Matris Deûm (celebration of the mother of the gods, Cybele) on the vernal equinox. Various games and amusements took place, people attended masquerades, and the lampooning of officials was permitted.
There are similar traditions in non-Western countries. In India the Huli festival takes place on 31 March, where similar jokes and gags are played on people. But it is unlikely that these non-Western traditions are the origin of the European practice.
In Scotland, the April Fool’s tradition is called “hunting the gowk.” A gowk is a cuckoo, or by extension, a fool. The word comes from the Old English géac, and is probably also the origin of the verb to gawk, meaning to stare or gaze stupidly. In France, the day is known as poisson d’Avril, or April fish. Small chocolate fish are awarded to the fools who fall for a gag.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton