April Fools’ Day

Chanticleer and the Fox by Barbara Cooney

April Fools’ Day (sometimes called ‘All Fools’ Day’) is celebrated every year on the first day of April by playing practical jokes and spreading hoaxes. Pranksters expose their ruse by shouting ‘April Fool.’ Some newspapers, magazines, and other published media report fake stories, which are usually explained the next day or below the news section in small letters. Although popular since the 19th century, the day is not a public holiday in any country.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (1392) contains the first recorded association between the first of April and foolishness. Some precursors of April Fools’ Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, the Holi festival of India, and the Medieval Feast of Fools.

In ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (1392), the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ is set ‘Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two.’ Modern scholars believe that there is a copying error in the extant manuscripts and that Chaucer actually wrote, ‘Syn March was gon.’ Thus the passage originally meant 32 days after March, i.e. May second, the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, which took place in 1381. In Chaucer’s tale, the vain cock Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox.

In 1508, French poet Eloy d’Amerval referred to a ‘poisson d’avril’ (‘April fool,’ literally ‘April fish’), a possible reference to the holiday. In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on April first. In 1686, English antiquary John Aubrey referred to the holiday as ‘Fooles holy day,’ the first British reference. On April 1, 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to ‘see the Lions washed.’

In the Middle Ages, New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25th in most European towns. In some areas of France, New Year’s was a week-long holiday ending on April 1. Some writers suggest that April Fools’ originated because those who celebrated on the first of January made fun of those who celebrated on other dates.The use of January 1 as New Year’s Day was common in France by the mid-16th century, and this date was adopted officially in 1564 by the Edict of Roussillon.

In the Netherlands, the origin of April Fools’ Day is often attributed to the Dutch victory at Brielle in 1572, where the Spanish Duke Álvarez de Toledo was defeated. ‘Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril.’ is a Dutch proverb, which can be translated to: ‘On the first of April, Alva lost his glasses.’ In this case, the glasses (‘bril’ in Dutch) serve as a metaphor for Brielle. This theory, however, provides no explanation for the international celebration of April Fools’ Day.

In the UK, an April Fool joke is revealed by shouting ‘April fool!’ at the recipient, who becomes the ‘April fool.’ A study in the 1950s, by folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, found that in the UK, and in countries whose traditions derived from the UK, the joking ceased at midday. A person playing a joke after midday is the ‘April fool’ themselves. In England ‘fool’ is known by different names according to the part where it is celebrated. If you are fooled on this day you may be known as ‘noodle,’ ‘gob,’ ‘gobby,’ or ‘noddy.’

In Scotland, April Fools’ Day was traditionally called ‘Huntigowk Day,’ although this name has fallen into disuse. The name is a corruption of ‘Hunt the Gowk,’ ‘gowk’ being Scots for a cuckoo or a foolish person; alternative terms in Gaelic would be ‘Là na Gocaireachd’ ‘gowking day’ or ‘Là Ruith na Cuthaige’ ‘the day of running the cuckoo.’ The traditional prank is to ask someone to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requests help of some sort. In fact, the message reads ‘Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.’ The recipient, upon reading it, will explain he can only help if he first contacts another person, and sends the victim to this next person with an identical message, with the same result.

In Poland, ‘prima aprilis’ (‘1 April’ in Latin) is a day in which many jokes are told; various hoaxes are prepared by people, media (which sometimes cooperate to make the ‘information’ more credible) and even public institutions. Serious activities are usually avoided. This conviction is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I signed on 1 April 1683, was backdated to 31 March. Danes, Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes also celebrate April Fools’ Day. Most news media outlets will publish exactly one false story on 1 April; for newspapers this will typically be a first-page article but not the top headline.

In Italy, France, The Netherlands, and French-speaking areas of Switzerland and Canada, 1 April tradition is often known as ‘April fish.’ This includes attempting to attach a paper fish to the victim’s back without being noticed. Such fish feature prominently on many late 19th- to early 20th-century French April Fools’ Day postcards. Many newspapers also spread a false story on April Fools’ Day, and a subtle reference to a fish is sometimes given as a clue. In Belgium, this day is also known as the ‘Day of the innocent children’ or ‘Day of the stupid children.’ It used to be a day where parents, grandparents and teachers would fool the children in some way. But the celebration of this day has died out in favor of April Fools’ Day.

As well as people playing pranks on one another on April Fools’ Day, elaborate practical jokes have appeared on radio and TV stations, newspapers, web sites, and have been performed by large corporations. In one famous prank from 1957, the BBC broadcast a film in their Panorama current affairs series purporting to show Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti, in what they called the ‘Swiss Spaghetti Harvest.’ The BBC were later flooded with requests to purchase a spaghetti plant, forcing them to declare the film a hoax on the news the next day.

In Spanish speaking world, December 28th is a Christian day of celebration (the ‘Day of the Holy Innocents’) where light-hearted pranks are customary. After somebody plays a joke or a prank on somebody else, the joker usually cries out, in some regions of Ibero-America: ‘Inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar’ (‘You innocent little dove that let yourself be fooled’). In Mexico, the phrase is ‘¡Inocente para siempre!’ which means ‘Innocent forever!’ In Argentina, the prankster says ‘¡Que la inocencia te valga!,’ which roughly translates as a piece of advice on not to be as gullible as the victim of the prank. In Spain, it is common to say just ‘¡Inocente!’ (which in Spanish can mean ‘Innocent!,’ but also ‘Gullible!’).

The practice of April Fool pranks and hoaxes is mildly controversial. The positive view is that they can be good for one’s health because they encourage ‘jokes, hoaxes…pranks, [and] belly laughs,’ and bring all the benefits of laughter including stress relief and reducing strain on the heart. Various April Fools’ campaigns have been praised for their innovation, creativity, writing, and general effort. The negative view describes April Fools’ hoaxes as ‘creepy and manipulative,’ ‘rude,’ and ‘a little bit nasty,’ as well as based on schadenfreude and deceit. When genuine news is published on April Fools’ Day, it is occasionally misinterpreted as a joke—for example, when Google, known to play elaborate April Fools’ Day hoaxes, announced the launch of Gmail with 1-gigabyte inboxes in 2004, an era when competing webmail services offered 4 MB or less, many dismissed it as a joke outright. On the other hand, sometimes stories intended as jokes are taken seriously. Either way, there can be adverse effects, such as confusion, misinformation, waste of resources (especially when the hoax concerns people in danger), and even legal or commercial consequences.

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