The Founding of a Foolish Festivity

Steven Dennis

When March gives way to April, experience dictates people everywhere must keep a lookout for pranksters and jokes. April Fools’ Day comes and goes every year with many stealing glances over their shoulders, wary of potential incoming practical jokes.

With this holiday being so intertwined with contemporary culture, its origins have become obscured. There have been a number of stories that lay claim to the inception of the holiday. Yet, while the origins may be nebulous, these possible explanations give background to the day and its long history.

One possible predecessor is an ancient festival named “Hilaria,” which celebrated and honored Cybele, who was said to be the Phrygian mother of the gods and was considered a nature goddess by the ancient Western Anatolians. This was a spring festival that included parades and masquerades as well as, of course, jokes and tricks.

Others claim that April Fools’ Day was inspired by the “32 March” referenced in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” written in 1392. Some believe that the extra day of march was a joke on the author’s part, hence the “April Fools.” However, some scholars of the medieval period claim that this was merely a misprint.

The third, more commonly cited origin story is of the transition between the usage of the Julian Calendar and the Gregorian Calendar, the calendar used most prominently today. With the adoption of a new calendar comes a period in which people must adapt, including to the timing of the new year. Those that still used the Julian Calendar celebrated the new year in spring. Some people that observed the new Gregorian Calendar began referring to these traditionalists as “April fools.”

While the phrase “April fool” is still used to describe someone that has fallen for a trick on this festival of foolishness, there are still many ways that people describe those that have been deceived. One such term is the “gowk,” a word used in Scotland to describe a cuckoo bird. In England, the words “gob,” “gawby” or “gobby” have been used. In France, an April fool is sometimes called “poisson d’Avril,” or April fish, meaning a fish that is young and easily caught or angled. This phrase in particular has garnered clever wordplay, such as asking if someone on the phone can hold the line and later asking if they have caught anything yet, which has become a popular trick.

While the origins of April Fools’ Day may yet by a mystery, the jests and jokes show no sign of ceasing. Indeed, the jokes seem to have only just begun.