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."
In 1508 Eloy d'Amerval, a French choirmaster and composer, published a poem titled Le livre de la deablerie. It consisted of "a dialogue between Satan and Lucifer, in which their nefarious plotting of future evil deeds is interrupted periodically by the author, who among other accounts of earthly and divine virtue, records useful information on contemporary musical practice."
The poem would principally be of interest to historians of music, except that it includes the line, "maquereau infâme de maint homme et de mainte femme, poisson d'avril."
The phrase "poisson d'avril" (April Fish) is the French term for an April Fool, but it is unclear whether d'Amerval's use of the term referred to April 1st specifically. He might have intended the phrase simply to mean a foolish person.
French Calendar Reform.
In 1563 King Charles IX reformed the French calendar by moving the start of the year from Easter Day to January 1. His edict was passed into law by the French Parliament on Dec. 22, 1564. This aligned legal convention with what had long been the popular custom of celebrating the start of the year on January 1.
Later, in 1582, Pope Gregory issued a papal bull decreeing sweeping calendar reform, which included moving the start of the year to January 1, as well as creating a leap-year system and eliminating ten days from the month of October 1582 in order to correct the drift of the calendar. The Pope had no formal power to make governments accept this reform, but he urged Christian nations to do so. France immediately accepted the reform, since it had already instituted part of the reform (changing the start of the year) in 1564.
This sixteenth-century calendar reform is frequently cited as the origin of the custom of April Foolery. Supposedly the people who failed to realize the start of the year had been changed had pranks played on them on April 1st.
There are a number of problems with this theory. First, the start of the year was changed from Easter day, not April 1st. Second,
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)
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.
Run on Bank.
On April 2, almost half the depositors of the Chicago bank of Kaspar & Karel lined up outside its front door, demanding to withdraw their money. The mass withdrawal of funds, almost $200,000 by the end of the day (all that the bank had on hand), nearly caused the institution's collapse. The cause of the run was traced to a false rumor that had circulated the day before alleging that the bank was in serious financial difficulty. Exactly who started the rumor isn't clear, but it apparently had been intended as an April Fool prank. Some sources claim that the rumor was begun by a milkman who had jokingly told a woman on his route that Kaspar's was closing, knowing that the woman had funds in the bank.
April Fool Riot.
On the night before April 1, students from Austin College stole a Union Army cannon from the campus of the neighboring Illinois College of Photography. In response, the students of the photography school marched on Austin College the next day, demanding their cannon back. The young women of the school marched at the front. But the Austin students turned out en masse to defend their stolen treasure, and a fight ensued, during which a number of students were seriously injured.
Anarchist Plot Against Pope.
"Rome, April 1 — The apocryphal plot against the life of the pope, which was reported in a London newspaper a few days ago and promptly ridiculed by the Vatican authorities, had a sequel today in an ill-timed 'April fool' story published by an insignificant newspaper here. This story was that two anarchists, who intended to make an attempt on the pope's life, had been arrested at a door of the Vatican with bombs in their possession.
The Osservatore Romano, the Vatican organ, most indignantly contradicts the story and points out the bad taste of such a joke."
The Hundred-Million-Dollar Robbery of the U.S. Treasury.
The Berliner Tageblatt broke the news of a shocking and massive crime. All the gold and silver in the U.S. Federal Treasury had been stolen. A group of thieves funded by American millionaires had tunneled beneath the Treasury and robbed it from below, getting away with over $268,000,000. The U.S. Government was said to be desperately trying to conceal the crime, even as its forces chased the criminals across the oceans of the world. Much of the German media accepted the story without question and reprinted it. Some newspapers even created illustrations to show the exact location of the tunnel dug by the thieves. When word reached America, there was reportedly a public outcry for a congressional investigation of the crime.
Moon Flies Out Of Orbit.
Large headlines in the Cincinnati Enquirer declared that the moon had flown out of its orbit and assumed a new position in the sky. The movement was said to have been accompanied by a "remarkable pyrotechnical display." The accompanying article explained that astronomers did not anticipate further shifts in the moon's orbit and assured everyone that there was no imminent danger. However, the moon would now cast so much more illumination that street lights would no longer be necessary.
A few days later, the Enquirer boasted that their "exclusive story of the moon's escapade completely sold thousands of people" who had spent the night of April 1st "looking for a repetition of the phenomenon," before they had realized what day it was.
Calling the Roll - Fifty-Seven Thousand Varieties.
Editorial cartoon in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The fools in line are all wearing scarves that identify what kind of fool they are, such as "Get rich quick investor," "Member of Cassie Chadwick school of bankers," "Gold brick buyer," "Dupe of oriental fakirs," "Scientist who thinks he can create life," etc.
Salton Sea Freezes.
On its front page, The New York Times announced that the Salton Sea in Southern California had frozen and that local residents were ice skating on it. A few days later, the LA Times applauded the NY Times for this "masterpiece of fooling," but noted the implausibility of the report since the Salton Sea, being next to Death Valley, was "the nearest to the infernal regions, in winter or summer, of any spot on the crust of the earth." However, a few publications did reprint the story as genuine news.
This appears to be the only April Fool joke the New York Times ever published.
Chicago Invaded By Dinosaurs.
A double-page, illustrated feature in the Chicago Tribune detailed the city's invasion by "hordes of prehistoric monsters dealing death and destruction."
The Philadelphia Iceberg.
The Philadelphia Record announced that a massive iceberg had been secured off the banks of Newfoundland and was being towed to the city. Its arrival was expected later in the day and was anticipated to relieve the region's ice shortage. Hundreds of people reportedly went down to the river hoping to see the iceberg's arrival.
The Clemson April Fool Parade.
Students at South Carolina's Clemson Agricultural College (now Clemson University) held a parade on April 1st, which angered the college president, Patrick Hues Mell, since the school was also a military academy and he objected to the sight of the cadets "parading around with their shirttails out in a most unmilitary exhibition for men in uniform." He banned the cadets from repeating April Fool pranks in the future. The next year many of the cadets defied this order, with harsh consequences for them.
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All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.