Fool’s Errand: Tracing the Cultural Lineage of April Fools’ Day

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By: Jake Vos

If you were to be wandering around France on April 1st in the 16th century; watch your back! One of the very early tricks in the strange tradition of April Fools’ Day was to stealthily attach a paper fish to an unwitting victim, branding them as the “April Fish” and promising mockery will follow them until they caught on. The joke spread year to year from France to Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and French-speaking Canada where pranks pulled on the 1st are referred to as April Fish to this day.

This origin of April Fools’ is storied and uncertain, but it has survived war, plague and the rise and fall of empires for nearly 2500 years. The earliest references to April Fools’ celebrations have been traced to the ancient Persian new year or ‘Nowruz’, a Zoroastrian festival celebrated on the Spring equinox that has been celebrated since 500 BCE. Known as Sizdah Be-Dar, it was a cleansing festival, as it was believed that laughter cleansed the mind of bad thoughts and burdens. Since then it flourished and spread and was adopted by the Romans and incorporated in Hilaria – a week-long pagan festival celebrating the end of the winter seasons and beginning of new life in the world.

During the middle ages and medieval times it is believed that the tradition continued in the Feast of Fools and the Day of Innocents – the equivalent of April Fools’ Day celebrated in Spanish-speaking nations on the 28th of December. The date was used to mock people still using the old Julian calendar after the modern Gregorian calendar came in to use, making January 1st the first day of the year. Although European nations were split over the new calendar, April Fools’ became a popular observance.

Nobles would send their servants on “fool’s errands” giving the servants impossible tasks to complete. An early English newspaper in 1860 once observed a group of people that had been tricked in to travelling to the Tower of London to observe a non-existent ceremony; “the washing of the lions”, one of the first recorded practical jokes.

April Fools’ was arguably refined to perfection in Scotland, where the April fish became a ‘kick me’ sign and children were sent on snipe hunts.

So when you prank someone on April 1st remember that you’re carrying on a tradition that has endured and thrived through the tests of time, distance and culture to bring a smile to your face.

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