The origin of April Fools’ Day is kind of like April Fools’ pranks themselves. If you read through the history, it’s hard to tell truth from fiction. The celebrated tradition of pranking might have started as part of a festival to praise the humble OR it might have been a way to ridicule a captured enemy before his execution or – no, wait – it was because some people got confused about when to celebrate the new year.
It might have started in France. Or maybe England. Or Rome. For certain. Maybe. It’s kind of hard to say…
According to Infoplease, one convincing explanation was provided by Joseph Boskin, a Professor of History at Boston University. He linked the practice to the Roman emperor Constantine, when a group of court jesters told Constantine that they didn’t get enough respect and could do a better job ruling the land. The emperor decided to appoint a jester named Kugel as king for the day, and Kugel took the opportunity to pass an edict created an annual absurdity day. When Boskin’s story was widely reported in 1983, it sounded convincing. But, as it turned out, he was just being feisty with an Associated Press reporter who wouldn’t take “I dunno” for an answer to “Where’d the tradition start, professor smartypants?” So as a joke he’d made up the story and used the reference to “kugel” because the reporter was in New York and he thought, well, everyone in New York eats kugel, don’t they?… When the AP fellow asked him to spell “kugel,” he wondered if the joke would be taken seriously. It was.
Here are several of what appear to be legitimate facts (based on Wikipedia and multiple places on the Internets) about April Fools’ potential origins:
- Roman Lord of Misrule: during the Roman Saturnalia festival, which took place the week of the winter solstice 12/17-12/23, a Lord of Misrule was appointed. Saturnalia typically involved boisterous revelry – drinking, feasting, orgies – the usual boister, so creating an upside-down social structure would have made sense. Some sources say that the Lord of Misrule was appointed in individual families where the youngest was allowed to be head of household, with one citation mentioning teenage Nero ordering his father Claudius about. Other sources note occasions where an enemy of the Roman people was mockingly crowned in public and ridiculed (think rotten tomatoes) before being sacrificed at the end of the festival.
- Feast of Fools: this week-long festival was designed by the early Catholic Church to celebrate the humble and set to coincide of the Feast of Circumcision on January 1st. In keeping with the biblical “blessed are the meek” idea, the concept was to recognize how the poor and lowly could be exalted – especially if they were more pious than their higher ups. The church allowed a ceremonial day for the lowly to change places with the high. In this specific case, this meant a subdeacon pretending to be “pope” or at least “bishop” for the day. While this started as a purely liturgical festival, the merrymaking involved with those wacky subdeacons apparently got out of hand. And/or spread to the general populace which as discussed already knew how to boister due to the Saturnalia thing. By the 12th century, church elders were condemning the practice, and eventually banned it outright in the Council of Basel in 1431. (As regulators today know very well, those people in Basel are just downright spoilsports…a little banking humor there for you.)
- New Year’s Day: The new year in much of Europe – England, France, Rome – in first two millenniums was celebrated in late March/early April, for example, on March 25th. Worldwide, New Year’s in both religious and secular calendars continues to vary even today. The Chinese celebrate it between late January and mid February. Thailand & Cambodia celebrate it mid April. Islamic culture ties it to the lunar calendar, meaning it moves around, and in 2016 it will be October 3. For Jews, Rosh Hashanah takes place in September/October. In Hindu – it appears to depend on the geographical location and branch of the culture, but typically will be between mid April or late March. What appears common is that the new year is celebrated either in the spring (or mid/late winter) or the mid fall, but not May, June, July, August or November. And never at dusk.
Humans around the world have often disagreed about when the new year starts and even what day it is, but most international secular references now commonly use the Gregorian calendar standard. What exactly is the Gregorian calendar? The church under Pope Gregory XIII established this calendar in 1582 in order to scientifically fix a problem that had been occurring with the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar called for 365 days per year plus a Leap day (extra day) every four years. This sounded good in 46 BC, but after 14 centuries, there was so much drift in the calendar, the celebration of Easter was starting to occur later and later in the year where instead of being at the end of winter, it was getting obvious that spring had sprung weeks earlier.
Gregory’s scientists did all their calculations – as best they could since their calculators were mostly astronomical and officially the sun was still revolving around the earth, this being a full fifty years before Galileo would be charged with heresy… At any rate, the church mathematicians changed the average length of the calendar year using the Century Leap Day reform. As the excellent and very technical Wikipedia article puts it:
The Gregorian reform modified the Julian calendar’s scheme of leap years as follows: Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the year 2000 is.
This changed the average length of a year from 365 days 6 hours to 365 days 5 hours 49 minutes and 12 seconds. Because those Julian scientists way back earlier thought, gee, it’s kinda hard to carve minutes into a sundial, so let’s just round up to six hours. But then 1500 years later, Santa Claus ends up seeing Punxsutawney Phil and the Easter Bunny is celebrating Cinco de Mayo and things are all messed up.
So they took a vote in 1582 and reset the calendar and, oh by the way, they just removed an extra ten days, while they were at it. You can even look up the calculation to determine the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendar, and since you all know I love a good equation, I will print it here:
- where is the secular difference and is the year using astronomical year numbering, that is, use (year BC) − 1 for BC years
Then they officially moved the beginning of the year back to January 1st for everybody rather than the middle of March. Although not everyone got the memo because Great Britain continued to celebrate New Year’s on March 25th until 1752. Which is why some sources think that April Fools’ day – at least in England – came about because some people still were planning to celebrate New Year’s in April.
One particularly fun historical April Fools’ practice is in France. You stick a paper fish on someone’s back when they’re not paying attention. Then upon their embarrassed discovery, you yell, “Poisson d’Avril!” and a great deal of merriment and joie de vivre is had by all with a lot of café au lait et vin et fromage aussi, probably.
Since I’m not writing this on April 1st, I hope you trust that this was as accurate as research gets on the Internets but I did use more than one source (and made sure they didn’t refer to each other). If you do start reading those web sources on Friday, though, including anything published in The Onion, you might take it with a grain of salt. Especially if it involves kugel.