Though the origin of the celebration of April Fool’s Day remains a mystery, there are several stories connected with it. Some trace April Fool’s Day back to Roman mythology, particularly the story of Ceres, Goddess of the harvest, and her daughter, Proserpina. 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. Another explanation of the origins of April Fools’ Day was provided by Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University. So the stories go on…
Though pranksters and joke-lovers in many countries now gleefully prepare to dupe friends and loved ones on April Fool’s Day, no one knows exactly when or why, or even where, this tradition began.
A giddy spurt of practical joking seems to have coincided with the coming of spring since the time of the Ancient Romans and Celts, who celebrated a festival of mischief-making. The first mentions of an All Fool’s Day (as it was formerly called) came from Europe in the Middle Ages.
Some trace April Fool’s Day back to Roman mythology, particularly the story of Ceres, Goddess of the harvest, and her daughter, Proserpina.
Pluto, God of the Dead, abducted Proserpina and took her to live with him in the underworld. The girl called out to her mother, but Ceres could only hear the echo of her daughter’s voice and searched for her in vain.
Such “fool’s errands,” or wild goose chases, became a popular practical joke in Europe in later centuries.
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 January 1.
According to a popular explanation, many people either refused to accept the new date, or did not learn about it, and continued to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 1. Other people began to make fun of these traditionalists, sending them on “fool’s errands” or trying to trick them into believing something false. Eventually, the practice spread throughout Europe.
Problems With This Explanation
There are at least two difficulties with this explanation. The first is that it doesn’t fully account for the spread of April Fools’ Day to other European countries. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted by England until 1752, for example, but April Fools’ Day was already well established there by that point. The second is that we have no direct historical evidence for this explanation, only conjecture, and that conjecture appears to have been made more recently.
Constantine and Kugel
Another explanation of the origins of April Fools’ Day was provided by Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University. He ex-plained that the practice began during the reign of Constantine, when a group of court jesters and fools told the Roman emperor that they could do a better job of running the empire. Constantine, amused, allowed a jester named Kugel to be king for one day. Kugel passed an edict calling for absurdity on that day, and the custom became an annual event.
“In a way,” explained Prof. Boskin, “it was a very serious day. In those times, fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.”
This explanation was brought to the public’s attention in an Associated Press article printed by many newspapers in 1983. There was only one catch: Boskin made the whole thing up. It took a couple of weeks for the AP to realize that they’d been victims of an April Fools’ joke themselves.
In France, this took the form of pranksters sticking fish on the backs of those who celebrated the old custom, earning the victims of the prank the name Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish.
But the theory can’t explain why the pranking tradition spread to other countries in Europe that did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until later.
In Scotland, the butts of April Fool’s jokes were known as April “Gowks,” another name for a cuckoo bird. The origins of the “Kick Me” sign can supposedly be traced back to the Scottish observance of the day.
In Scotland, for example, April Fool’s Day is actually celebrated for two days. The second day is devoted to pranks involving the posterior region of the body. It is called Taily Day. The origin of the “kick me” sign can be traced to this observance.
Mexico’s counterpart of April Fool’s Day is actually observed on Decem-ber 28. Originally, the day was a sad remembrance of the slaughter of the innocent children by King Herod. It eventually evolved into a lighter commemoration involving pranks and trickery.
In more recent times, radio stations, TV programs and Web sites have set up gullible readers and listeners. One of the most notorious jokes was a 1957 hoax BBC documentary of the annual spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, featuring a family plucking strands of the pasta from “spaghetti trees.” The Italian favorite was still considered an exotic delicacy in Britain at the time, and many listeners were so fooled they wanted to find out how to get a spaghetti bush of their own.
On April 1, 2007 Internet search engine Google anno-unced their new Gmail Paper service, where users of the free e-mail service could save e-mails to a paper archive which Google would print out and mail for free. Last year, Google invited people to sign up for a Mars exploration project.
So while you’re surfing the Web or watching TV on April 1, be wary of what you see and read, or you could end up an April Fool!
April Fool’s Day is a “for-fun-only” observance. Nobody is expected to buy gifts or to take their “significant other” out to eat in a fancy restaurant. Nobody gets off work or school. It’s simply a fun little holiday, but a holiday on which one must remain forever vigilant, for he may be the next April Fool!