Tracing back the ancient origins of April Fools’ Day

On 1st April every year, people around the world celebrate April Fools’ Day, sometimes called All Fools’ Day, a day when merriment and joviality is supposed to reign and pranks, practical jokes, and hoaxes are socially sanctioned.  The tradition of April Fools’ Day has been observed for at least five centuries, but evidence suggests it traces back nearly two millennia or more.  Despite the day being marked by many countries around the world, there is still little agreement as to its true origins.

A popular theory suggests that April Fools’ day is a remnant of early ‘renewal festivals’ which took place in many different cultures to mark the beginning of spring. The Romans, for example, had a festival named Hilaria on 25th March, which they marked with masquerades and “general good cheer.”

According to the Museum of Hoaxes, these festivities typically involved “ritualized forms of mayhem and misrule.”  Participants donned disguises, played tricks on friends as well as strangers, and inverted the social order.

An ancient Roman myth also tells the story of the God Pluto who abducted Proserpina, the Goddess of grain and harvest. Proserpina’s mother could only hear the voice of her daughter when she searched for her in the vast expense of the underworld. This fruitless search ended in vain and inspired the idea of a fool’s errand.  However, the concept of the fool’s errand has also been linked to other historical events.

According to the Biblical theory, the 1st April is the day that Jesus was sent from Pontius Pilate to Herod and back again, a journey which has also been associated with the old expression of sending someone on a fool’s errand.

During the middle ages, a number of celebrations developed which appear to have evolved from earlier pagan festivals and which served as direct predecessors to April Fools’ Day. The most important of these was the Festus Fatuorum (the Feast of Fools) which evolved out of the Saturnalia.

On this day, (mostly observed in France) celebrants elected a mock pope and made fun of church rituals. The church, of course, did its best to stamp out the tradition, but it persisted until the sixteenth century.

In late medieval Europe, fools, jokers, or jesters, as they came to be known, were popular entertainers who performed in town squares and royal courts. Much of the entertainment was performed in a comic style and many jesters made contemporary jokes in word or song about people or events well known to their audiences.

A medieval jester - April Fool's Day
A medieval jester. Image source: Wikipedia

Another theory regarding the origins of April Fools’ relates to the change of calendar in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar (the Gregorian Calendar) to replace the old Julian Calendar. A number of ancient cultures, including the Romans, celebrated New Year’s Day on or around 1st April, but the new calendar called for New Year’s Day to be celebrated 1st January.

According to a popular explanation, those who refused to accept the new date, or did not learn about it, and continued to celebrate New Year’s Day on 1st April were reportedly subjected to pranks and ridicule and were rumoured to have been called “April Fools” for observing the holiday months later. Finish reading here:

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