Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The History of April Fool's Day

If the internet looks weirder than usual to you today, there’s a simple answer. Check your calendar. April Fool’s Day strikes again! Some companies have fun with it (Thinkgeek and Google are always reliable for a good laugh), others miss the point entirely and often there’s at least one stunt that goes so wrong you hear about it on the news. This is the day everyone on social media shuts their eyes and plugs their ears, shouting “LALALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU” as the lies and “jokes” roll in. Comedy is hard, April Fool’s makes it harder.

I got to wondering, though. Why is April Fool’s even a thing? Why do we do this to each other every year? WHO IS RESPONSIBLE? I dove into the internet to find the answers, and they may surprise you!

The earliest mention of April 1st as a day of tomfoolery and lies comes from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century. The events of the story “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” can be read as a giant April Fool’s joke. The story is about the proud rooster Chauntecleer who is tricked by a clever fox.

There are other references to April 1st as a day of making people look like idiots. Various poets through the ages used it as a way to cause mischief, including sending servants on impossible tasks and tricking groups of people into visiting the Tower of London to “see the lions washed”.

If we can’t blame Chaucer, we can certainly place some blame at the feet of medieval Europe itself. Before the 16th century. New Years was celebrated in the spring (now Easter makes more sense, right?) and often ended on April 1stt, a day that would be marked by playing tricks on people and servants pretending to be noblemen. There was probably drinking involved.

April Fool’s isn’t strictly a European blight. The actual idea of having a day set aside for making jokes and playing pranks is purely Roman. They had a holiday, the Festival of Hilaria, that involved jokes and comedy and games. As with all things Roman, the idea was stolen from the Greeks, who called their own joke-filled festival Ascensus. The day before all the laughter was reserved for somber reflection and crying, called Decensus. Think of the tragedy/comedy mask you often see associated with drama. It was basically a festival version of that. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!

April Fool’s Day isn’t just American or European. In India, the colorful Holi festival is often used for playing practical jokes and there is an Iranian version called Sizdahbedar. Many Nordic countries call is April Fish and attempt to tape paper fish to the backs of unsuspecting people (do those fish also say “kick me”, I wonder?).

So there you have it. The odd origins of April Fool’s Day. Thanks for nothing, Geoffrey Chaucer!
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