The Origin of April Fools’ Day

The true origins of April Fools’ Day are uncertain, but one theory is that it began in 1582, when France adopted the Gregorian calendar. Before then, New Year’s Day fell on March 25, not January 1. And those who continued to celebrate the old New Year (at the beginning of April) were called “fools” by their early adopting peers.

Even before this transition, the New Year was associated with the term “fool.” In medieval France, the Feast of Fools fell on January 1. Hijinks abounded at this popular festival: Christian rituals were burlesquely imitated, a fake pope was elected, and high and low officials swapped jobs for a day. Feast of Fools was probably modeled after the similarly themed pagan festival called Saturnalia.

As this French tradition died out during the 16th century (probably good to accept the new calendar by then), a new one sprung up in the form of April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day. In France, the fooled party is called the poisson d’avril, which literally means “April fish.” The customary prank involves pinning a paper fish (also called the poisson d’avril) to to a friend’s back.

This isn’t the only April Fools’ custom involving sticking paper to another person’s back. In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is called Gowkie Day—gowk is another name for the cuckoo, which is a common symbol of the fool. The gowkie pranks continue into April 2, Taily Day, when friends traditionally attach a “kick me” sign to their friends’ backs.

Other countries have their own customs: Brazil celebrates April 1 as Dia da Mentira, or “Lie Day,” in which people try to fool their loved ones for comedic effect. And while it’s not directly related to April Fools’ celebrations, in northern India people throw colored water and powder on others as part of the Hindu festival of Holi, which generally falls in February or March. One Holi tradition is strikingly similar to the now defunct Feast of Fools; for one day people playfully trade caste, status, gender, and age roles.

So the beginning of spring marks a time of lighthearted pranking around the world. And let’s hope spring really has sprung. Although as I write this (April 3), we are expecting snow on Thursday. We can’t plant anything in the ground until Memorial Day for fear of frost. Also please don’t complain if you saw this article elsewhere. I copied most of it from something I saw elsewhere but don’t remember where.