All Fools' Day

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ALL FOOLS' DAY . The first day of April, known as All Fools' Day or April Fools' Day, is traditionally marked by the custom of playing jokes (usually on friends) and engaging in frivolous activities. It stands as one of the few spring festivals in Christian Europe unaffected by the date of the celebration of Easter. All Fools' Day should not be confused with the Feast of Fools, the medieval mock-religious festival involving status reversals and parodies of the official church by low-level cathedral functionaries and others (held on or about the Feast of the Circumcision, January 1). April Fools' Day activities, however, are related in spirit to this once-licensed kind of revelry. The actual origins of April Fools' practices and their connection to the first of April are unknown. The day and its traditions appear to reflect some of the festive characteristics of such non-Christian religious celebrations as the Hilaria of ancient Rome (March 25) and the Holi festival of India (ending March 31). Traditional celebrations related to the vernal equinox and to the arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as that season's playful and often fickle weather, may also have contributed to the timing and persistence of April Fools' customs.

The development of All Fools' Day has been the subject of much popular speculation. The day has been seen as commemorating the wanderings from place to place of the raven and dove Noah sent from the ark to search for day land after the biblical flood. It has also been thought to memorialize in an irreverent way the transfer of Jesus from the jurisdiction of one governmental or religious figure to another in the last hours before his crucifixion. In either case, the events in question were believed to have occurred on or near the first of April. An intriguing explanation for April Fools' Day customs in France, on the other hand, concerns confusion over the change in the date for the observance of the New Year. Those who recognized March 25 as the beginning of their year (a number of different dates were used to mark this occasion in medieval Europe) culminated their eight-day celebration of this event on April 1. When in 1564 Charles IX changed the official date to January 1, some people either resisted the change or failed to remember when the year was to begin. This confusion led to the practice of exchanging false greetings for the first of the year on the old day of its observance (April 1) and of sending false gifts, as a joke, to those who expected the customary holiday presents on that day. Thus some scholars believe that jests of all sorts soon came to be associated with this date. The term poisson d'avril, literally translated as "an April fish," is still used to describe the foolish victim of an All Fools' Day prank.

The custom of "April fooling," known and practiced in many European countries, was brought by English settlers to the United States of America. There, any person of any age or rank is susceptible to being made a fool on April first; tradition demands, however, that these jokes take place only within the twelve-hour period from midnight to noon (with the rest of the day reserved, no doubt, for apologies). Today, the practice is usually observed by children, although some adults continue to perpetrate both simple and complex jests and hoaxes on unsuspecting individuals on this day.


Little worthwhile scholarly work has been done on the subject of All Fools' Day. A valuable English antiquarian source of information on the day's customs is The Book of Days, 2 vols., edited by Robert Chambers (18621864; Philadelphia, 1914). A more contemporary reflection on April Fools' Day traditions, especially in Great Britain, can be found in Christina Hole's British Folk Customs (London, 1976). Hertha Wolf-Beranek's "Zum Aprilscherz in den Sudetenländern," Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 64 (1968): 223227, provides a short but useful summary of the changes that have taken place, in European usage, in the term describing individuals who are fooled on April 1. Catherine H. Ainsworth's "April Fools' Day," in volume 1 of her American Calendar Customs (Buffalo, N.Y., 1979), inadequately explains the origins of the observance, but her collected accounts of the day as celebrated in the United States are informative.

New Sources

Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. New York, 2003.

Farrell, James J. "April Fool's Day." Clergy Journal 77 (April 2001): 12.

Leonard Norman Primiano (1987)

Revised Bibliography