April 1 – a day with a long history of European tradition and mischief

March 30, 2012

By U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs

HEIDELBERG, Germany -- April Fool’s Day is this weekend, and that means mischief.

But where did it all begin? Across Europe there are many explanations for this day of pranks, and many ways of…er…celebrating…the day.

Here are some bits of European April Fool’s lore and lunacy:

Some historians suggest that the tradition began with ancient festivals such as Hilaria, celebrated by the Romans at the end of March and Saturnalia in late December, both of which included celebrations involving play acting and costumes.

Some speculate that the day was once tied to the vernal equinox -- the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere -- when Mother Nature fooled people by sending them changing, unpredictable weather.

British folklore traces April Fool’s Day to the Gotham, the “town of fools” in Nottinghamshire. Legend has it that because 13th-century tradition made any road used by the king public property, the citizens of Gotham spread a false story designed to stop King John from passing through their town. The king found out about their deception, however, and sent a messenger to the town to demand an explanation. What the messenger found in Gotham was a town that appeared to be engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish or attempting to cage birds in roofless pens. Of course it was all an act, but it tricked the king, who declared Gotham too foolish to punish. Ever since, April Fool’s Day supposedly commemorates the Gothamites’ foolery.

Some sources say the first mention of April Fool’s Day appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, released in 1327. Others say it dates to the 16th century, when the Council of Trent changed the calendar from the Julian to Gregorian version and moving New Year’s from March to January 1, and people who continued to celebrate the New Year on the old date of April 1 were teased for being fools.

While in many countries custom calls for playing April Fool’s pranks only before noon, in Scotland, the celebration lasts 48 hours and is centered on a custom of harassing friends known as “hunting the gawk” (or sometimes the “gowk”), or the cuckoo. On the second day, called ‘Taily,’ pranksters attach ‘kick me to their victims.

In France, April fools are known as “poissons d’avril” or “April fish.” A common belief is that that the name comes from the fact that in early spring fish were so plentiful that they could easily be lured into traps. This evolved into a popular custom among French children of sticking a picture of a fish on an unsuspecting victim’s back. The fish theme is seen in other countries as well, such as Italy, where fools are also called April fish -- “pesce d’aprile”, and Sweden, which has a popular rhyme that translates as “April, April, you dumb herring, I can lure you wherever I want.”

In Poland, prima aprilis, Latin for April 1, is a day for jokes and hoaxes. The media plays along by publicizing hoax information, and even public institutions get in on the act. Serious activities are usually avoided; this conviction is so strong that an anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I signed on April 1, 1683 was backdated to March 31.

Speaking of media, the British media are well known for their April Fool’s spoofs. A classic 1957 BBC hoax reported on the bumper spaghetti crop in southern Switzerland. But the tradition is still going strong. A sampling of 2010 gags compiled by the Associated Press includes The Sun’s claim that it developed the first flavored newspaper page for readers to try (though it warned the flavoring “may contain nuts”); the BBC’s “revelation” that William Shakespeare was half French; the Daily Mail’s story on the fitting of Automobile Association mechanics with jet packs to fly over traffic jams to help broken-down motorists; the Daily Mirror’s picture of Queen Elizabeth jetting off to her official duties on a budget airline; and the Independent’s report that scientists wanted to turn a London subway line into a particle accelerator.

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