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What is April Fools’ Day, and why do we recognize it?

By Patrick Lynn

April Fools’ Day, celebrated annually on April 1, is a day filled with pranks and practical jokes.

While its exact origins are uncertain, several theories attempt to explain the tradition.

One popular theory, according to Encyclop√¶dia Britannica, traces the origins of April Fools’ Day to 16th-century France. In 1564, King Charles IX of France adopted the Gregorian calendar, shifting the start of the new year from the end of March to January 1. Those who continued to celebrate the new year during the old date became the target of jokes and pranks, earning them the nickname “April fools.”

The Margaret MacDonald book, “The Folklore of World Holidays,” suggests that April Fools’ Day has roots in ancient Roman and Celtic festivals. The Roman festival of “Hilaria,” celebrated at the end of March, involved games, masquerades, and general merrymaking.

There are glimpses of April Fools’ Day in Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” where the rooster Chauntecleer is fooled by, and in turn fools, a fox. This event occurs “Syn March bigan, thritty dayes and two,” or 32 days after the beginning of March, which corresponds to April 1.

While this could be an early reference to the date, many scholars believe the word “bigan” is a scribal error, suggesting the intended date was actually May 2, 32 days after March concluded. Even if this correction is accurate, the presence of such a scribal error might indicate that medieval scribes expected stories like this to be associated with April 1.

In France, “poisson d’avril,” or “April fish,” refers to someone duped on April Fools’ Day. The first reference to “poisson d’avril” is found in a 1508 poem by Eloy D’Amerval titled Le Livre de la Deablerie, or The Book of Deviltry. However, the context of the poem does not definitively indicate whether the author was referring to April 1 specifically or to fools in general.

The concept behind the “April fish” appears to be based on the idea that fish were abundant and easily caught in the spring, making them more gullible, akin to someone easily fooled on April Fools’ Day. Thus, merely mentioning an “April fish” does not serve as proof of a holiday on April 1.

While the true origin of April Fools’ Day remains unclear, the tradition has endured for centuries, evolving into a day of light-hearted pranks and jokes observed in many countries around the world.