The Origin of April Fool’s Day.
In 1708 a correspondent wrote to the British Apollo magazine asking, "Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?" The question is one that many people are still asking today. The puzzle that April Fool's Day presents to cultural historians is that it was only during the eighteenth century that detailed references to it (and curiosity about it) began to appear. But at that time, the custom was already well established throughout northern Europe and was regarded as being of great antiquity. How had the tradition been adopted by so many different European cultures without provoking more comments in the written record?
What are the rules and customs of April Fool’s Day?.
April Fool's Day is a celebration of mischief and misbehavior, but it's not a complete free-for-all. There are rules about how it should be observed. Unwritten rules, but ones that nevertheless hold the weight of hundreds of years of tradition. And even for those who do not plan to play pranks, there are customs about what are appropriate activities to engage in on the day.
Do No Harm (and nothing illegal)The first of April is a time for lighthearted humor, and pranks perpetrated on the day should reflect this. Ideally an April Fool's Day prank should be funny to everyone involved when it's all over. At least, that's the goal.
The essence of an April first prank is to fool a victim. Therefore, pranks that involve no deception are considered out of place. Traditional April fool pranks include gluing a coin to the pavement, putting salt in a sugar bowl, and tricking someone into believing their shoelaces are untied.
A typical April Fool's Day prank: gluing a coin to the sidewalk and watching as people try to pick it up
On Halloween, by contrast, pranks often assume a darker, more malevolent quality and do not necessarily involve any deception. Traditional Halloween pranks include
What’s the correct spelling of April Fool’s Day?.
The issue here is the placement of the apostrophe. Should the apostrophe be placed before the 's': as in, April Fool's Day. Or after the 's': as in, April Fools' Day.
Both spellings, it turns out, are correct. Or rather, neither spelling is demonstrably wrong. Valid arguments can be made for both. So for the foreseeable future, we shall doubtless continue to see both forms used.
However, "April Fool's Day" is the more popular spelling, and arguably has the better case for being correct, which is why that's the version used here on the Museum of Hoaxes. But let's review the arguments for both options.
April Fools' DayThe case for April Fools' Day rests on the assumption that the phrase refers to all fools in general. Therefore, to indicate the plural form, the apostrophe must come after the 's'.
Proponents of this spelling point to All Fools' Day, which is an alternative (now archaic) term for the celebration. Because All Fools is clearly plural, we might assume that April Fools is also so.
A number of authorities, including Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Macmillan Dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Wikipedia use this spelling.
April Fool's DayHowever, if the fool in April
What’s the origin of April Fool’s Day?.
I delve into the mystery of the origin of April Fool's Day in greater detail elsewhere, so I'll provide the condensed version here.
The folklorist Alan Dundes once noted, while discussing April Fool's Day, that "ultimate origins are almost always impossible to ascertain definitively." To this, another folklorist, Jack Santino, later added, "Explanations for the origins of April Fool's Day are many, and often as foolish as the day itself."
So if we keep in mind that we're never going to be able to pinpoint a precise moment in time when the custom of making April fools began, nor an exact reason why, and that most of the origin theories in circulation are somewhat far-fetched (to be charitable), then there are really only two things we can say with any certainty about the origin of the day: that the celebration is most likely a rite of spring;and that it was well established by the middle of the 16th century.Rites of SpringRites of spring can be found in most cultures, and they usually follow a similar pattern. They're festive occasions when, for a brief period of time, social rules can be flouted and a certain amount of misbehavior, mischief, and deception is allowed.
How is April Fool’s Day celebrated in different countries?.
April Fool's Day has become a global phenomenon, but there are regional variations in its customs and how it's celebrated.
Fool's ErrandsFrom the 16th to 18th centuries, the prank that was most closely associated with April 1 was the fool's errand — also known as a wild goose chase or (archaically) a 'sleeveless errand'. This emphasis still endures, at least linguistically, in certain areas.
In Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium and the Netherlands, April 1 is referred to as Verzenderkesdag (fool's errand day).
Likewise, in Scotland and parts of northern England, April 1 was traditionally known as Huntigowk Day, on account of the old custom of "hunting the gowk" on the first. A gowk was a cuckoo, but on April 1 it referred to the victim who was sent on a "gowk hunt". He was asked to deliver a note that, unbeknownst to him, read, "Never laugh, never smile, Hunt the gowk another milk" (or some variation of that). Recipients of this note would duly redirect its bearer elsewhere until the victim had been run all over town.
"Hunting the Gowk" - illustration by Freeman Martin (1975)
Icelanders had a custom of hlaupa april ("running April") very similar to the gowk hunt, but
What’s the earliest reference to April Fool’s Day?.
This is another way of asking, how long have people been celebrating April Fool's Day?
The earliest unambiguous reference that is currently known is found in a poem by the Flemish writer Eduard De Dene, published in 1561 (more details below). So we can say that April Fool's Day has existed since at least the mid-sixteenth centuy.
However, some other possible earlier references have been suggested. These earlier possibilities are problematic, but let's review them.
ChaucerWithin the past decade, an argument has gained popularity online claiming that Chaucer alluded to April Fool's Day in The Canterbury Tales, completed circa 1392. If true, it would be the first time the celebration was mentioned in any language. In fact, it would predate any other reference by a good margin.
The claim derives from a line in the Nun's Priest's Tale which describes the tale as taking place "Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two" (i.e. 32 days since March began). This would place it on either April 1 or 2.
Coupled with the fact that the tale involves trickery (a fox fooling a rooster, and then getting fooled back), this suggests that Chaucer (so the argument goes) purposefully
What are the best books and articles about April Fool’s Day?.
There's been a great deal written about April Fool's Day. Every year for the past 100 years, whenever the day rolls around, newspapers and magazines have been producing articles about the history and customs of the celebration. Unfortunately, most of what's been written is not very good. The same small nuggets of information (and generous heapings of misinformation) are repeated uncritically over and over again.
To find better analyses of April Fool's Day, one needs to turn to folklorists, who have produced the bulk of the few serious studies of the celebration that exist.
Listed below is the best of the bunch. It's arranged in chronological order, to make it easier to see the most recent studies.
Brand, John. (1853). Observations on Popular Antiquities of Great Britain. A new edition, revised and greatly enlarged by Sir Henry Ellis. Henry G. Bohn: 131-141.
Dickens, Charles Jr. (1869). "All Fools' Day." The Gentleman's Magazine. 2: 543-548.
Lemoine, Jules. (1889). "Le poisson d'Avril en Belgique." Revue des Traditions Populaires. 4: 227-30.
Bolton, H. Carrington. (1891). "All-Fools' Day in Italy." The Journal of American Folklore. 4(13): 168-170.
Walsh, William S.
Zoo Gets Giant Grasshopper.
The Dutch magazine Het Leven reported that the Hague zoo had acquired a new animal — a giant grasshopper. A photo showed zoo workers taking the creature to its enclosure.
The Madmen of Gotham.
British folklore links April Fool's Day to the town of Gotham, the legendary town of fools located in Nottinghamshire. According to 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 (1166-1216) 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 to make the King believe they were insane. The King fell for the ruse and declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment. Ever since then, according to legend, April Fool's Day has commemmorated their trickery. (The thumbnail shows a 1630 woodcut depicting a citizen of Gotham trying to trap a bird inside a roofless fence.)
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
In the Nun's Priest's Tale (written around 1392), Chaucer tells the story of the vain cock Chauntecler who falls for the tricks of a fox, and as a consequence is almost eaten. The narrator describes the tale as occurring:
When that the monthe in which the world bigan
That highte March, whan God first maked man,
Was complet, and passed were also
Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two
Some scholars have suggested this is a veiled reference to April 1st, since thirty-two days "Syn March bigan" (since March began) would be April 1. It is intriguing to think that Chaucer might have chosen this date purposefully, setting the tale on April 1st because of the tradition of tricks and foolery associated with the day. It would be appropriate for a story of a foolish cock and sly fox.
If it is a reference to April Fool's Day, then it would be the earliest recorded reference to the day. However, Chaucer's choice of words is extremely ambiguous, and most scholars think he meant May 3, since that would be "thritty dayes and two" after March "was complet."
A long poem published in 1508 by a French choirmaster, Eloy d'Amerval, has caught the eye of historians of April Fool's Day because the text includes the phrase "poisson d'Avril," which is the French term for an "April Fool." Does this indicate that the custom of April Fool's Day was already established in France at the beginning of the 1500s?
Probably not. Or, at least, we can't conclude that from d'Amerval's poem, because the manner in which he used the phrase "poisson d'Avril" doesn't indicate that he associated the term with folly or April 1. Instead, for him it seemed to be a slang term for a pimp or matchmaker. Etymologists suggest that this was, in fact, the original meaning of the term, and that it only evolved to mean an "April Fool" in the 17th century.
Shakespeare’s Omission of April Fool’s Day.
During the late 1500s, William Shakespeare was in London writing the plays that would eventually make him the most famous playwright in the world. He was, as Charles Dickens Jr. later put it, a writer who "delights in fools in general." And yet, Shakespeare never mentioned April Fool's Day in any of his works, which would be a strange omission if the custom was known in England at the time.
But in fact, no reference to April Fool's Day has ever been found in any English-language text from the 1500s — not even in diaries or letters. From this, it seems safe to conclude that the custom was not known in England during the sixteenth century.
The Jutphaas Spotmandement.
This unusual, handwritten document (a 'spotmandement' was a kind of mock edict or proclamation) detailed the plan of events for a raucous, folly-themed Shrove Tuesday celebration in Jutphaas, near Utrecht in the Netherlands. It included a list of the food that was going to be eaten and the music that would be played. And then its anonymous author stated that April 1 would be the day on which fools would be required to have their fool's caps inspected.
The brief reference to April 1 doesn't specifically state that it was a day set aside for playing pranks, but it clearly demonstrates that the author of the text associated the day with fools and folly. And it is the earliest unambiguous reference to such an association that is known. (The exact date of this document's creation is unknown, but it's believed to have been written in the early to mid 1500s).
French Calendar Reform.
A popular legend holds that April Fool's Day began in 1564 when the 14-year-old King Charles IX of France passed the Edict of Roussillon, decreeing that henceforth the year would begin on January 1, instead of April 1. Supposedly some people failed to hear about the change and continued to celebrate the new year on April 1, causing people to make fun of them and play pranks on them. In this way, they became the first April fools. The existence of references to April Fool's Day before 1564 suggests that this cannot have been the origin of the celebration. But also, the story is incorrect in that April 1 was not considered the start of the year in any part of France before 1564. The year began on different days in different parts of the country (March 25, March 1, Easter, or January 1). One of the reasons for the reform was to impose a single calendrical system throughout the entire country.
Nach dem Aprill Schicket.
A leaflet published in 1631 contained the phrase "nach dem Aprill schicket" in its title. This is the earliest known appearance in print of the phrase "in den April schicken" (or a variant thereof), this being a German idiom meaning to make an April Fool of someone (literally, "to send someone in April").
The leaflet was titled "Eigentliche Contrafactur, Wie Kön. May. zu Schweden den alten Corporal Tyllen nach dem Aprill schicket".
It mocked Count Tilly, commander of the Catholic League's forces during the Thirty Years' War, as an April Fool after he was defeated by the King of Sweden.
First British Reference.
Francis Osborne's Deductions from the History of the Earl of Essex, published in 1659, contains a reference to a Dutch custom of the youths in that country sending fools on "impertinent errands" on the second of April.
Although Osborne specified the second of April, it's a safe assumption that he meant to refer to April Fool's Day on the first. The fact that he described it as a Dutch tradition suggests that April Fool's Day was still not widely practiced in England.
John Aubrey's Remains of Gentilism and Judaism, published in 1686, was a collection of material about folk customs and beliefs. It included a brief passage on "Fooles holy day," about which Osborne noted:
"We observe it on ye first of April… And so it is kept in Germany everywhere."
Aubrey's meaning is somewhat vague, but he appears to be saying that April Fool's Day was celebrated throughout Germany. This suggests that he regarded the custom to be primarily a German one.
On April 1, 1683, King John III Sobieski of Poland signed the Treaty of Warsaw with the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, agreeing that each should come to the other's aid in the case of an attack by the Turks. The treaty was subsequently backdated to March 31 to avoid the stigma (and perceived bad luck) of being signed on April 1. To this day, many companies avoid making major announcements on April 1, and couples avoid being wed, because of the perceived "jinx" of the day.
The 1647 edition of Wolfgang Schönsleder's German-Latin dictionary, Promptuarium Germanico-Latinum, included a definition for the phrase "in Aprillen schicken." Schönsleder defined it as "calendis Aprilibus circummittere" (i.e. to send around on the calends of April, or on the first of April).
"In den April schicken" is a German idiom meaning to make an April Fool of someone.
Washing the Lions.
The April 2, 1698 edition of Dawks's News-Letter (a London newspaper) reported that "Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed." The joke was that there were no lions being washed at the Tower of London (although there were animals there). Therefore, the people had been sent on a fool's errand. This is the earliest known record of an April Fool's Day prank.
For well over a century after this, the prank of sending unsuspecting victims to see the "washing of the lions" at the Tower of London remained a favorite April Fool's Day joke. In the mid-nineteenth century, pranksters even printed up official-looking tickets that they distributed around London on April first, promising admittance to the (non-existent) annual lion-washing ceremony.
The Washing of the Lions.
The April 2, 1698 edition of Dawks’s News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” This is the first recorded instance of a popular April Fool's Day prank that involved sending people to the Tower of London to see the "washing of the lions." The joke was that there was no lion-washing ceremony. It was a fool's errand. (For more info, see the Hoaxipedia article: Washing The Lions)
The Swedish explorer Olof Toreen wrote in his account of his "Voyage to China" that his ship set sail on April 1, 1750, but that "the wind made April fools of us," and they were forced to take shelter in the Danish port of Skagen.
Peter the Great’s April Fool.
According to legend, Peter the Great introduced the custom of April Fool's Day to Russia in 1719 (or perhaps 1718 or 1723 — sources differ) when he ordered an immense pile of wood to be erected in the open square in front of his St. Petersburg palace and then had it set on fire early in the morning of April 1. From a distance it looked as if the palace were on fire, and people rushed from miles away to help put out the blaze. They were met by troops at the edge of the square who told them, "The Little Father has fooled you. It is the first of April today." Though reportedly the fire brigade that showed up got better treatment. They were rewarded with beer and brandy.
Poor Robin’s Almanack.
The 1738 edition of Poor Robin's Almanack (a popular satirical English publication) included a poem that described the various fool's errands that pranksters would trick victims into pursuing on April first. These errands included being asked to find such things as hen's teeth or pigeon's milk.
An illustration from around 1770 depicts London youths making fun of an old man on April 1 by tying a kite to his hair. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for young people to celebrate April Fool's Day by playing pranks on strangers in the city streets. It was for this reason that the holiday was often greatly disliked by the older, more respectable members of society.
Wanted: 17 Fool’s Coats.
A handbill requesting the delivery of 17 fool's coats and caps to Middletown, Connecticut on April 1 for a convention (presumably of fools) was printed up and distributed in various New England towns. The handbill was signed "Sancho Panca," which is almost certainly a pseudonym. Its author may have been Moses H. Woodward, who was the only printer in Middletown in 1796.
This is the earliest known American reference to April Fool's Day.
Leno and Campbell Edit the Sun.
As a publicity stunt, the popular British comedians Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell were given free rein to edit the April 1 edition of the London Evening Sun. The resulting paper sold close to 3 million copies, although it received mediocre reviews from readers who complained that the jokes were stale. Later that same year, the duo recreated their day spent as editors for a film, titled "Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell Edit the Sun," which was shown around the world. This marked the first time that April Fool's Day pranks were recorded on film.
A Premium for Pennies.
A New York newspaper reported that, due to a "fault in the die," pennies minted in 1894 were being recalled by the U.S. Treasury, which would pay a premium of 50 cents for each coin returned. As a result of this story, Treasury offices soon had to start turning away numerous people who showed up wanting to redeem their pennies. One woman reportedly came with a bagful of pennies that she said she had paid 20 cents each for, insisting that they be redeemed for the full advertised premium.
More April Fool Categories
All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.