Like the Ides of March, I think we expect April Fools’ Day to be an ancient tradition dating back to a time when people believed that anything disturbing could be attributed to witchcraft (whereas today we know such happenings are caused by either alien life forms or the Kardashian family.) But there’s no real evidence that April Fools’ Day dates back to the Romans or even the middle ages. In fact, there’s no concrete evidence of the origin of the famous day of pranks at all.
In 1708, someone wrote to the British magazine Apollo to ask ” Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” That seems to indicate that it was an old custom in 1708. But if so, it was a custom not remarked on by anyone with a pen handy. At least not in England. There is a Flemish poem from 1561 about a servant being sent on crazy errands on April 1 and a slightly earlier French poem that refers to April fish (more below), but nothing tracing this back to the Romans or even any society of the Middle Ages.
There are theories, of course, but no one stands out as being the most logical. Two of the most popular theories involve the French (and we are not surprised). One theory holds that the April Fools Day tradition dates to the time when the calendar was changed to move the start of the new year from the end of March to the beginning of January. Those who refused to accept the new date were ridiculed and people stuck paper fish to their backs and called them Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish. Since this is still the term the French use for April Fools, it makes sense. Sort of. (Paper fish? Really?) The problem is that at the time of the official calendar change in the 1500s, most French people really used January 1 as the start of the traditional new year, so changing the legal calendar to January 1 confirmed what they were already doing. The only people who had trouble with the change were the lawyers, and you don’t need a special day to make fun of them – any day is open season. (And I am a lawyer by the way, so don’t get on my case for lawyer-bashing.)
The second theory about the April Fish is that in early spring, the French rivers were full of young, gullible fish who could easily be caught. So in early April, the world was full of foolish fish and that was cause to celebrate. Of course, in other countries, fish hatch out of their eggs fully grown, so it’s easy to see why young fish are a French phenomenon.
There are a lot of other things that could have led to the April Fool’s Day tradition. It could have come from a Roman festival such as the Saturnalia, when slaves were allowed to pretend they ruled their masters and a “Lord of Misrule” reigned for a day. But this holiday was traditionally celebrated at the end of December. It could come from a Northern European holiday such as the festival of Lud, the Celtic god of humor. It could have evolved from the Feast of Fools, a medieval festival much like Saturnalia with a Lord of Misrule and a blasphemous mockery of church ritual. But this was also traditionally celebrated around January 1 rather than April 1. Both Germany and the Netherlands have legends tying the origins of April Fools Day to their country. In Germany, the first April Fools were men who lost money speculating on a meeting that never took place. In the Netherlands, the fools were the Spanish, who lost control of a town and eventually the whole country.
So while there are many possibilities, no one can definitively claim to be the originator of April Fools Day. But does it even matter? While pranks in the workplace and hoaxes in the media used to be common on April 1, their popularity has waned substantially. My husband blames the lawyers. (Again with the lawyer bashing. But I do agree.) We have a become a weak society, taking offense where none is intended and actually publicizing and trying to capitalize on our weakness. We want to profit from any insult, real or imagined. So in the end, perhaps we have all become the “Poisson d’Avril.”
And we’d better hope a bigger fish isn’t waiting nearby to swallow us up.
The illustration above is an oil painting by Laurence Smith based on an engraving by Pieter Bruegel the Elder entitled “Feast of Fools.” If you like the idea of the Feast of Fools and situations where things are a bit absurd, you might enjoy my “Love and Lunacy” series of stories about the eccentric Wright family. In chronological order, the stories are “A Certain Want of Reason,” “The Appearance of Impropriety,” “Deceptive Behavior,” and “Dinners with Mr. Danville,” but these are crazy so of course you can read them in any order.