Watch outI I was caught out three times this morning.
The ancient folklore of April 1
April Fools' Day: This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.Mark Twain, in Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar, 1894
Sending people on fools’ errands has a long history. These days a teacher might send an unruly pupil to another teacher with the message “ Please give this boy a long weight”. All that the lad gets, of course, is a long wait. Or else he might be sent to the Industrial Arts teacher for a “left-handed hammer”. Either way, the joke’s on the boy, who probably deserves it.
In merry olde England the errand was for a gullible person to be sent to the saddler’s for a “ pen’orth (penny’s worth) of salad oil”. In this ruse, the pun is between “salad oil” and the French “avoir de la salade”, to be flogged. So the poor dupe got a beating for his innocent pains.
Other nasty people would send youths to a bookshop for the “ History of Eve’s Grandmother”, or to a cobbler for a little strap oil (the butt of the joke would indeed get the strap).
The Scots have always loved April Fool’s jokes. They call an April Fool a gowk (or cuckoo; Anglo-Saxon geac, origin of the word geek), a name which even today sounds as descriptive of its meaning as it did in olden times. The trick was to send the dupe with an envelope containing a message to someone else’s house a long way off. The letter inside would only read
This is the first day of April:In this practice, known as “hunting the gowk”, the poor trickee was sent by numerous trickers several miles on a pointless errand. Traditionally, the Scottish April Fools Day is 48 hours long, with the second day being called Taily Day and dedicated to pranks involving the backside, such as the old “Kick Me” sign.
Hunt the gowk another mile.
Another explanation for April Fool’s Day customs also relates to religion: that Noah sent the dove out from the Ark, to see whether the deluge was over, on two occasions before the flood had dispersed -- truly a fool’s errand.
A very old tradition
The custom is probably much older than the explanations indicate. At around the same time of year in India, sending people on fools’ errands has since time immemorial been associated with the end of the Feast of Holi. The roots of this practice might be intertwined with those of the Western tradition.
In medieval times in Europe, March 25 was New Year’s Day in most countries. As with all holy days, such as Christmas and saints’ days, festivities would last the “octave”, that is, until April 1, and on this day people would visit one another’s houses to exchange gifts, as we do today at Christmas.
When the calendar changed and January 1 was nominated as New Year’s Day, no doubt some people would have forgotten the change, just as many of us today accidentally record last year’s date when we write cheques in January. Some scholars say that those people who visited their friends on April 1 would have been seen as fools, and thus the tradition started. Unfortunately the true facts are lost in the haze of time.
Today newspapers and radio stations commonly trick their readers and audiences on April 1 (in the morning of course, because an April Fool’s joke done after midday is deemed to make a fool of the tricker). News stories of icebergs entering the harbour, and photos of comely young women standing next to ponds, while their reflected images are sitting, are grist for the April 1 mill.
In March 1860 a large number of prominent people in London each received an invitation which read “ Tower of London, The White Gate – Admit the Bearer and Friend to view the Annual Ceremony of Washing the White Lions, on Sunday, April 1st”. Unfortunately for the numerous people who drove around the Tower for hours, there is no White Gate to that building. They were victims of a typical, successful April Fool’s Day prank.
Some say the tradition might be a relic of the Roman Cerealia, a festival held at the beginning of April. The great explicator of fables, E Cobham Brewer, tells us that the legend is that the goddess Proserpina (Persephone) was playing in the Elysian meadows, and had just gathered up a bunch of daffodils, when the god Pluto carried her off to the lower world. Her mother, Ceres, heard the echo of her protestations, and went searching after her voice, but her search was a fool’s errand -- a Roman hunting of the gowk. Perhaps, says Brewer, April Fools' Day might be a relic of the Roman ‘Cerealia,’ held in April.
Are people born on April Fool’s Day less than adequate people? Well, you’ll just have to ask William Harvey, the British physician and anatomist who discovered the circulation of the blood (born April 1, 1578); Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer (1873); German statesman Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck (1815) and Ali McGraw, the American actress (1938). Find more at April 1 in the Book of Days.
Whether you are in France, where the April fool is called “le poisson d’avril” (April fish), Scotland, England, the USA or Australia, watch out on the morning of April 1 lest you be caught out. After midday, feel free to relax entirely.
In Australia, and some other countries, it's traditional for an April Fools' Day prank to be performed before noon, otherwise the prankster is considered to be the April Fool.
More on April 1 (with links)