Friday, April 1, 2011

The origins of April Fool's Day

Trying to uncover the origins of April Fools' Day is quite a fool's errand in itself.

Some say it can be traced back to a Roman festival called Hilaria (as in “hilarious”) It was celebrated on the 8th day before the Kalends of April (March 25th.) It was a day of light-hearted fun and masquerades.

There are lots of conflicting stories; this is touched upon in the following poem from the late 18 th Century.

The first of April, some do say,
Is set apart for All Fools' Day.
But why the people call it so,
Nor I, nor they themselves do know.
But on this day are people sent
On purpose for pure merriment.
--Poor Robin's Almanac (1790)

This then is the prevailing theory:
Over the years the calendar for the Western world has shifted considerably. The Romans originally had a ten-month calendar.

The truly creative names of the 7th, 8th 9th and 10th months were: Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten. Or in Latin: Septem, Octo, Nove, Decem (September, October, November, December, duh.) Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar decided they wanted their own months and thus July and August were added. (In reality they bumped the months named Five and Six, Quintilis and Sextilis ( now that's a way cooler name than August.)

More important to our story is the fact that on the old calendar the New Year used to begin in spring. Made sense, new beginnings, crops coming alive.

So in late March, or early April, folks had their New Year celebration. They'd run out into the fields making noise to scare the evil spirits from their emerging crops (and thus the New Year's noisemaker was born)

Folks followed Julius’s Julian calendar for ages.
Then in 1562, Pope Gregory decided to introduce a new one for the Christian world. On the Gregorian calendar the New Year fell on January 1st. Initially, some folks stuck with the original date and had their parties in March and April. Eventually the parties petered out.

Then those tricksters the French come into the picture. Practical jokers in France began sending out invitations to fictitious New Years Eve parties to be held on April first. If you showed up for one you were called an April Fish. Don't ask me why you were a fish; the French have some weird thing with food. Actually, one explanation is that an April Fish is a newly spawned fish, a na├»ve youngster susceptible to trickery-–easily caught.

In France today, April first is called "Poisson d'Avril." French children fool their friends by taping a paper fish to their back. When the " fool" discovers the trick, the prankster yells "Poisson d'Avril!" April Fish!
(A few years back a friend thanked me for this memo. He said he now understood why schoolmates back in Ohio taped paper fish on each other's backs on April 1st.)

The tradition spread to England and further.
In Scotland the fool who is pranked is called a GOK, a slang word for a cuckoo bird. The day is called Tally Day and centers around keester kicking, putting “kick me” signs on people’s backs.In England the prankee is called a Gob or a Gobby.

All pranks are supposed to end by noon. Otherwise the prankster will have bad luck for the “new year”. The fools who are pranked are supposed to accept the prank graciously; otherwise they will have bad luck.

Historically the media gets involved in pranks. Keep that in mind when you read the paper on today. The rather staid BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, pulled one of the most famous April Fools' pranks. In 1957 they ran a report of how in Italy spaghetti is harvested from spaghetti trees. You can see this classic prank at:

One of the more famous American April Fools' pranks was pulled by Sports Illustrated in 1985 an expose of how the New York Mets had a pitcher in training camp who pitched barefoot and could sling a 106 mile an hour fastball. You can read the story at:

So, if someone pulls an April Fools' trick on you
just remember the words of Mark Twain:

"The first of April is the day we remember
what we are the other 364 days of the year. "

Born in the month of Sextilis

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