Tomorrow, April 1, is April Fools' Day, when we are all alert for those spoof news stories and irritating practical jokes.
The origins of April Fools' Day are something of a mystery.
The most common explanation is that April Fools' Day started in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII's Gregorian Calendar replaced the Julian Calendar, meaning that New Year's Day fell three months earlier. News travelled slowly in those days. Many people did not find out about the changes and continued to celebrate the start of the year on April 1. They were called "April Fools".
However, there are references to April Fool type customs that pre-date 1582. For example, Chaucer's Story The Nun's Priest's Tale, written around 1400, is about two fools and takes place "thritty dayes and two" - or 32 days - from the start of March, which would be April 1.
Many cultures have holidays with the theme of merriment just after the spring equinox. The Romans celebrated the festival of Hilaria, the Hindus have Holi and Judaism has Purim. However, these all celebrate some deliverance from trouble and their emphasis is more on joy than on practical jokes, with a light-heartedness that could also be associated with lighter evenings following the spring equinox.
April Fool customs vary from country to country. In France, people who are fooled on April 1 are called Poisson d'Avril, which means "April Fish". A common joke is to stick a paper fish to a person's back. What a fish has to do with April Fools' Day is uncertain. Some people point out that Jesus Christ was represented as a fish by early Christians, but even though I am not a Christian I am unsure why Jesus would be called a fool.
In Scotland, the victim of an April Fools' Day hoax is called an April "Gowk", which is Scottish for cuckoo, an emblem of simpletons.
Whatever the origins of April Fools' Day might be, the custom shows no sign of dying out. If you are planning some practical joke tomorrow, remember that it must be done before midday or you will be called a fool yourself.
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