How April Fools’ Day Began

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Written by Alexandra Goh


“You’ve been April fooled!”

Yes, it is that time of year again, where this phrase will be reverberantly repeated on one specific day. The first of April, best known as April Fools’ Day, is a day of trickery and amusement where practical jokes and comical pranks are played on people, whether it be parents, friends, teachers, co-workers, you name it. Yet, have you ever wondered how April Fools’ Day came about? How did it become such a worldwide phenomenon that everyone regardless of age looks forward to each year? Here are a few common theories on the origins of April Fools’.

Let’s go back in time to ancient Rome. The Romans celebrated the arrival of spring with a vibrant festival known as Hilaria. This festival was held every 25th of March, with people decked out in various costumes and disguises, accompanied by parades, games and masquerades. According to historians, this may also be related to the vernal equinox, which signals the beginning of spring and when sunny days are longer. Another similar example is Holi, a Hindu festival also celebrated in March to honour the changing of the seasons during spring.

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Besides that, some speculated that the idea of April Fool’s Day was inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s well-known story collection ‘The Canterbury Tales’, published in 1392. In “The Nun’s Priest Tale”, the protagonist of the story (a vain, proud rooster named Chauntecleer) was foolishly tricked by a sly fox and almost eaten up. The line, “Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two” was linked by scholars in reference to April 1st, for thirty-two days from March fell on that particular date. There were even assumptions that Chaucer had intentionally chosen his story to be based on that date, due to the tradition of April Fool’s being a day of mischief and trickery. Well played, Chaucer.

Did you know that April Fools’ is also known as Fool’s Errand Day? Here’s how the name came about. The term “a fool’s errand” was derived from the action of sending someone to look for things that either did not exist or were simply ludicrous, even swindling them into believing false news. Take a 1561 Flemish poem for example, written about a servant being sent back and forth by his master on ridiculous tasks to prepare for a wedding banquet. Meanwhile in Britain, the first reference to April Fool’s Day was made when John Aubrey, a philosopher and writer, outlined the first day of April as a “Fooles holy day.”

By the late 1600s, it seems that it was a prevalent trend to send unsuspecting rubes on absurd errands in Europe. As a matter of fact, in 1698, there were many dupes who were tricked into schlepping to the Tower of London to witness the “washing of the lions”. Little did they know, to their dismay, that such a ceremony was non-existent. The local newsletter published a headline the next day, debunking the hoax and humiliating the fools who were deceived. What a national catastrophe indeed.

Last but definitely not least, the most common theory: the Gregorian calendar. New Year’s Day was celebrated on April 1 back in the days, believe it or not. In 1582 however, Pope Gregory XIII called for a change in the calendar, which resulted in New Year’s Day being shifted to January 1. Apparently, this was not received well by the majority of the public, and many refused to acknowledge the new date or simply remained ignorant. Those who were unaware of the change in calendar would be pranked by others; for instance, in France, a cut-out fish (known as a poisson d’avril, or April fish) would be pinned on their backs, portraying the person as “an easy catch”.

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As such, it is evident that April Fools’ Day has been a longstanding tradition way before technology was brought into our world. Despite the devilish tricks played and the embarrassment bequeathed upon its victims, the day will always end with laugher and good-natured humour. Just be sure not to visit France on the 1st of April – you might end up with a poisson d’avril pinned on your back without knowing it!

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