Celebrated every year on the 1st April, April Fool’s Day, or All Fools Day, has its origins shrouded in mystery.
One of the most popular theories is that in the early 1500’s the French changed their calendar. Rather than the New Year beginning with the start of Spring in March or April, as it had before, it would begin in January to match the Roman calendar. As many of the communities of France at this time were rural, and news travelled slowly from place to place, many people living in remote country areas didn’t hear about this change for some time, and consequently continued to celebrate the New Year in the Spring, earning them the unkind label of being “April fools.”
After in-depth research by Boese, however, many historians disagree with this theory. Boese showed that the French had “celebrate(d) [the New Year] on January first for as long as anybody could remember.” Instead he believed that April Fools’ Day had grown out of age-old European spring festivals of renewal, in which pranks were common.
This idea that April Fool’s Day simply developed out of previously held festivals is certainly plausible. As far back as Roman times, the festival of Hilaria, held on 25th March every year, had involved playing tricks on others. This “joking” practice was also part of the Medieval Feast of Fools, (28th December), when pranks were played between friends and neighbours across Spain and its dominions.
There are many late medieval references to April Fools pranks in the European literature of the day. In 1539, the Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on 1 April. It isn’t until 1686, however, that we find the first British reference to the day, when John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day.”
April Fool’s Day’s has been popular throughout history, and this popularity shows no sign of abating. Keep your wits about you this Tuesday!
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.