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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:
  1. that the celebration is most likely a rite of spring;
  2. and that it was well established by the middle of the 16th century.
Rites of Spring
Rites 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.

In the ancient world, we find a number of spring festivals, many of which continue to be celebrated to this day. The ancient Romans observed Hilaria the day after the vernal equinox by allowing people to dress up in disguise as anyone they wished. And on the Veneralia, on April 1 itself, Roman women honored the fertility goddess Fortuna Virilis by entering the men's bathing complexes naked and burning incense, praying that the deity would help conceal their physical imperfections from male eyes. In India, there was the spring festival of Holi, which dates back to the 3rd century (and remains an active holiday). It involved people partying in the streets, throwing colored powder and water at each other, and, according to some 19th century sources, playing pranks such as sending victims on fools' errands. The Persians had Sizdah Bedar, dating back to the 6th century BC (and still being celebrated). It was held on April 1. People headed outdoors, had picnics, participated in games and sports, and played jokes on each other. Finally, the ancient Jewish festival of Purim (at the start of Spring) was a time of satire and frivolity, when people dressed up in costumes and performed "Purim spiels," comic plays designed to evoke laughter. Again, it's very much still in existence.

Girls spraying each other with colored water at Holi, circa 1640

There's no evidence that April Fool's Day descended directly from any of these festivals. Instead, it's more likely that April Fool's Day resembles these other celebrations because they're all manifestations of a deeper pattern of folk behavior — an instinct to respond to the arrival of spring with festive mischief and symbolic misrule.

In fact, by the late Middle Ages, April Fool's Day was only one of a number of spring festivals that had emerged in Europe. Preceding Lent, there were Shrovetide celebrations in the north, and the Carnival tradition in Latin Europe. In Portugal, there was a custom of throwing water and flour on people on the Sunday and Monday prior to Lent. May Day (May 1) was a day for playing pranks in many countries (particularly England, Denmark, and Sweden). Both Śmigus-Dyngus Day (on Easter Monday) in Poland, and Royal Oak Day, aka Shig-Shag Day (May 29) in England involved elements of ritual mischief. And, of course, there was Easter itself which, though more subdued, was nevertheless a time for games and merrymaking.

Shrove Tuesday celebration, as depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

Pranks and Springtime
Why do people in so many cultures respond to the arrival of spring with pranks and mischief?

Anthropologists can only speculate about why, but one possibility is that the misbehavior and playful frolic mimics the creative fertile energies that are returning to the world after winter. And allowing this frolic for only a brief period of time is a symbolic way of trying to harness and control this creative force, lest it grow out of control.

Another theory is that the pranks associated with these festivals act as a kind of calendrical hazing ritual. Pranks and hazing rituals are common rites of passage during major life changes such as getting married (think of tin cans on the back of the car), starting a new job, starting school, or birthdays (birthday spanking). So the theory is that major changes during the year, such as the arrival of spring, similarly prompt people to respond with hazing rituals. And in line with this theory, it's worth noting that it's traditional to play pranks not only at the start of spring, but also at the start of winter (on Halloween), and in some cultures at the start of the new year as well. For instance, Spanish-speaking countries celebrate the Day of the Holy Innocents (a custom that is very similar to April Fool's Day, involving pranks and telling tall tales) at the end of the year, on December 28.

Hazing rituals are common during transitional events, such as getting married, starting school,
or starting a new cycle of seasons

Why April 1?
So April Fool's Day is most likely a rite of spring. But why is it observed on April 1 specifically? Why not on another day in the spring, such April 2, or March 28? This is the question that's inspired a lot of the most farfetched theories.

For instance, a very popular theory (repeated year after year by the media) links the date to the French calendar reform of 1564. The story goes that in 1564, King Charles IX of France passed the Edict of Roussillon, decreeing that henceforth the year would begin on January 1, instead of April 1. But some people failed to hear about the change and continued to celebrate the new year on April 1. Therefore, people played pranks on them, making them the first April fools.

King Charles IX, who was only 14 years old when he passed the Edict of Roussillon

There's a number of things wrong with this theory. Most significantly, we know from textual references that the custom of April Fool's Day had already been well established by the 1560s. So the calendar reform cannot have been responsible for a custom that already existed beforehand. But also, 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.

The actual reason why April 1 is the day of the celebration is likely much simpler. During the middle ages, April was widely considered to be the first month of spring. Therefore, it was logical to observe a rite of spring on the first day of the first month of the season.

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