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April Fool’s Day: A Long, Silly Tradition

April Fools’ Day has been “celebrated” or recognized for centuries.  But it’s true origins are murky, even preposterous, and ironically, the stories of how the day came to be may be a prank itself.

Most countries recognize April Fool’s Day on April 1st.  Usually, a prank is played on another person like telling someone their shoelaces are untied, when they’re not, and making the person look down at their still-tied shoelaces.  Some pranks can be more elaborate.  Some radio stations have used the day to pull off a prank, fooling many of their listeners and newspapers will publish false headlines or news stories.

Historians trace the origins of April Fools’ Day all the way back to festivals in ancient Rome, resembling Hilaria which is held on March 25th, as well as the Holi celebration in India, which ends at the end of March.

Some scholars have made the connection that our modern custom actually started in France when the Edict of Roussillon was officially introduced in 1564.  Charles IX decreed that the new year would not start on Easter, which had been the long-standing custom throughout Christendom.  Instead, the new year would start on what is now the standard: January 1st.  Because Easter is a lunar holiday, which is a moveable date, people who clung to the old ways were labeled, “April Fools.”

Others have suggested that the timing of the day may be related to the vernal equinox (March 21), a time when people are fooled by sudden changes in the weather.

The Catholic Church and its “Feast of Fools,” was celebrated around Jan. 1 in medieval France and England where church officials originally encouraged the carnival-like celebrations, dressing in costumes and bringing donkeys into church. They believed it helped “release pent-up anti-clerical sentiment among the people,’ author and historian Jack Santino writes. But by the 15th century they decided the feast had become too raucous, ultimately banning the celebration. But like anything that involves  involving flouting authority, flaunting societies ills, and generally having a good time, the “Feast of Fools” did not die easily.  In fact, it would be several hundred years before people stopped celebrating.

The most popular theory about the evolution of April Fools’ Day also involves the Catholic Church as it was Pope Gregory XIII who issued a decree in the late 16th century ordering that Christian countries adopt a standardized calendar. Hence, “The Gregorian Calendar” moved the new year from the end of March to the first of January, even though people who continued to celebrate on the old day, either because it was the 16th century and word traveled slowly or because they simply wanted to be a rebel, were labeled and outwardly mocked as “April fools.”

Different countries have different variations in how their citizens celebrate April Fools’ Day, but all have in common an excuse to make someone play the fool or be the victim of an unsuspected prank.

Either way, by the end of the next century, April Fools’ Day was so ingrained that people had to entirely stop attempting to achieve serious things on April 1. It’s said that the Treaty of Warsaw, which established an anti-Ottoman alliance between Poland and the Holy Roman Empire, was backdated from April 1 to March 31, 1683, just to prevent any possible confusion.

In France, for example, a person who is fooled is called poisson d’avril (“April fish”), perhaps in reference to a young fish and hence to one that is easily caught.  Often, French children to pin a paper fish to the backs of unsuspecting friends. In Scotland the day is Gowkie Day, for the gowk, or cuckoo, a symbol of the fool and the cuckold, which suggests that it may have been associated at one time with sexual license; on the following day signs reading “kick me” are pinned to friends’ backs.

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