The origin of April Fool’s Day: It’s not the Gregorian Calendar Reform!

It's like the ultimate April Fool's Day joke that's been played every year, for at least the past 100 years. Probably longer. Journalists report that the most probable theory of the origin of April Fool's Day is that the celebration dates back to the late sixteenth century when people in France got confused by the calendar reform that moved the beginning of the year from April 1 to January 1. Those who continued to celebrate the beginning of the year on April 1 had jokes played on them and were called April Fools (or "poisson d'Avril" in French).

This year was no different. For instance, over at the Huffington Post, Alex Leo reported:
The origins of April Fools' Day are murky, but the likeliest explanation is that it began as a way to mock French people who were slow to switch to the Gregorian Calendar which changed New Year's from April 1 to January 1. These folks were labeled "fools" and some were sent on "fools' errands."

Andrea Thompson of LiveScience (in an article featured on the front page of Yahoo) wrote:
The most widespread theory of the origin of April Fool's Day is the switch from the old Julian to the Gregorian calendar (now in use) in the late 16th century. Under the Julian calendar, the New Year was celebrated during the week between March 25 and April 1, but under the Gregorian calendar, it was moved to Jan. 1. Those who were not notified of the change, or stubbornly kept to the old tradition, were often mocked and had jokes played on them on or around the old New Year.

It's time to kill this theory off once and for all. In fact, it shouldn't even qualify as a theory. It's just a historical legend. Here are the facts:
  • There is no evidence in the historical record to suggest people were mocked for getting confused about the date change. When reporters offer this as a historical fact, they're inventing history.
  • In fact, the beginning of the year was not celebrated on April 1 in any European country. The English began the year on March 25. The French began it on Easter Day. There may have been a few, rare occasions when Easter fell on April 1, but that wouldn't have been enough to create a strong association between April 1 and the beginning of the year.
  • Under the Julian calendar the year began... on January 1! So this was part of the Julian calendar that the Gregorian reforms didn't change, but actually reasserted.
  • The other dates (March 25 and Easter) had been adopted in some countries because their rulers had felt the year should begin on a date of greater theological significance. But these dates were mainly used for administrative purposes (which is why the tax year still begins later in the year in some countries). Among the general population, January 1 was widely regarded as the traditional start of the year. The reason the French King officially moved the beginning of the year back to January 1 in 1564 is because he was bowing to popular demand. That's when everyone was celebrating it anyway.
  • Here's the clincher: there are literary references to April 1 being a "fool's errand day" that date from before the calendar reforms. This being the case, how could the calendar reforms possibly have been the origin of the celebration?
  • Finally, serious historians don't give the calendar-change theory any credence. Instead, the general consensus is that April Fool's Day is descended from some ancient pagan tradition associated with the beginning of Spring. Beyond that, it's not possible to say much. As the folklorist Alan Dundes noted about April Fool's Day, "ultimate origins are almost always impossible to ascertain definitively."
I present all this information in my article on the origin of April Fool's Day, which is one of the top links on Google if you do a search for the origin of April Fool's Day. Most of the info can also be found in the Wikipedia article on the Gregorian Calendar. Nevertheless, I realize it's probably overly optimistic to expect reporters to do much fact checking when they're on a deadline and told to write a story about the origin of April Fool's Day, which is why I expect the calendar-change hypothesis to keep getting rolled out year after year by reporters, well into the future.

April Fools Day

Posted on Thu Apr 02, 2009


So the Simpsons lied to me!
Posted by Mark  on  Thu Apr 02, 2009  at  10:12 AM
My guess would be that it's just people going silly after having survived another long cold dark Winter.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Thu Apr 02, 2009  at  07:05 PM
I wonder if there can be any connection to the March Hare?
Posted by Bill Rock  on  Fri Apr 03, 2009  at  09:38 AM
It's my understanding that the origin of April Fool's Day started in the late 60's, when many men (and some women) became infatuated with The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., aka April Dancer. If you don't believe me, then my guess is you're a member of T.H.R.U.S.H, and are plotting world domination at this very moment, you evil bastards
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Fri Apr 03, 2009  at  10:39 AM
I heard of a story tat in some countries today, on April fools, they tell a person to send someone else a message on a piece of paper. The paper says to send it to someone else, so the person receiving it would send the original messenger to give the same message to a different person. This sounds like fool's errand day, but then again, this is probably not the origin. Maybe they based it off of the past, OR they started before that literature was made?
Posted by Matt  on  Wed Apr 22, 2009  at  06:49 PM
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