How did April Fool's Day begin? What is it about April 1 that made us, as a society, decide that for one day every year keying your ex's car and setting fire to a public restroom will count as youthful exuberance instead of criminal misconduct?*
(*This is not youthful exuberance. Even on April Fool's Day you'll get arrested. Our bad.)
Pending arson charges aside, April Fool's Day is an odd holiday. It doesn't celebrate any religious or political milestones. Why, exactly, do we cut loose and play pranks at the beginning of April every year?
It turns out that nobody exactly knows. Seriously, people have been asking this question for literally hundreds of years. Europeans and Americans have been celebrating April Fool's Day for longer than there has been a United States without ever knowing why.
The Old, Really Dark Explanation
We'll start by reaching hundreds of years into the past. The book "Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" suggests that in 1708 historians thought that April Fool's Day started with the Romans.
We won't reproduce the exact quote because… well, it's incredibly dark. In a nutshell, though, not long after its founding, the men of Rome wanted wives. They approached the neighboring Sabines but couldn't convince any of the women of that community to move to Rome.
In what author John Brand called "a memorable transaction happening between the Romans and the Sabines" the Romans "resolved to make use of a stratagem." This is the 1905 version of saying that the Romans announced a series of fake games to honor the god Neptune and then, when people from nearby towns came to attend this festival, the Romans kidnapped all of their daughters and forced them to become Roman. The date of this festival? Early April.
Let's just be thankful that Brand wasn't a war correspondent or the Battle of the Somme might have made headlines as a spirited springtime debate.
The Calendar of Fools Theory
Fortunately even John "banned from public buses" Brand admitted that the story of the Romans and the Sabines is probably not true.
Another mainstream explanation is the Gregorian/Julian calendar changeover. For this explanation we'll kick it over to History.com, which happily we can quote in full without referencing any war crimes.
Some historians speculate that April Fool's Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563. People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to Jan. 1 and continued to celebrate the new year during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.
These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as poisson d'avril (April fish), said to symbolize a young, "easily hooked" fish and a gullible person.
Now, in defense of all those French poissons past, April 1 actually makes tons more sense for the start of the year than Jan. 1. The end of winter, the first reliable thaws and the beginning of spring makes a great and optimistic way to begin the year. That goes double for an agrarian society.
But, once again, this story is speculation. The April Fish almost certainly happened. In the 16th century, French peasants did try and fool their neighbors into thinking that the year still began in spring. Whether that actually led to wacky Google Doodles hundreds of years later… that's up for debate.
Changing Seasons Theory
Another theory is that April Fool's Day simply commemorates the changing of the seasons. We play pranks on each other to celebrate fickle springtime weather and the end of the long, dark and (in ages past) hungry winter.
This idea isn't quite as simple as it seems because, remember, April Fool's Day isn't actually the only holiday dedicated to pranks and mischief on the calendar. The lighthearted mischief in April has a dark counterpart six months later. According to JSTOR:
The coming of spring itself also seems to be a big part of the tradition of practical jokes and purposeful deception. Winter is ending, but not quite over yet. The day becomes one of celebrating the transition between seasons. It's somewhat akin to Halloween, but embracing, rather than the darkness of winter, the light of spring. The pranks are lighter in spirit, too, unlike "Hell Night's" more anonymous and potentially dangerous tricks.
April is about the new, the green and the fresh. So what better time to have some fun at the expense of the green and gullible among your friends? Just as October, in which decay marks the beginning of winter, is celebrated with far more mean-spirited pranks and tricks.
April Fool's Day may be about nothing more or less than blowing off a little cabin fever.
Back to the Romans
Then there's the holiday of Hilaria.
On or around March 25, Romans in the Cybele-Attis mystery cult held a festival called Hilaria. It was a "day of merriment and rejoicing," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and people observed it by marching through town, dressing in costume and playing jokes on each other. Commoners dressed as nobility could get away with behavior that they never could during the rest of the year, a permissive celebration that should sound familiar to anyone who has ever fumbled with a greased doorknob on April Fool's Day.
It was timed to the first day after the vernal equinox, right when the former Julian calendar marked the new year, relating this theory to the other mainstream source of April Fool's Day in history.
So why isn't that simply the end of the story? Unfortunately, it's because the historical record doesn't quite hold up. If April Fool's Day conclusively began with Hilaria then historians would have a record of this holiday stretching back to the Romans. That record doesn't exist. The first mentions of Hilaria and April Fool's Day don't appear until around the 16th century.
That doesn't discount this idea entirely. April Fool's Day may have existed all along, but with no more cultural footprint than Arbor Day until people revived the tradition. It just means that we can't conclusively blame the Romans either.
Whatever the origins, the holiday doesn't seem to be going anywhere. So lock your doors and trust no one, because it will be April 1 before you know it.
And happy spring.
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