The History of April Fool’s Day

4 TThe custom of setting aside a day for the playing of harmless pranks upon one’s neighbor is recognized around the world. Some precursors of April Fools’ Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, the Holi festival of India, and the Medieval Feast of Fools.

The earliest recorded association between April 1st and foolishness can be found in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1392). Some writers suggest that the restoration of January 1st as New Year’s Day in the 16th century was responsible for the creation of the holiday, but this theory does not explain earlier references.

In The Canterbury Tales (1392), the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is set Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two. Modern scholars believe that there is a copying error in the extant manuscripts and that Chaucer actually wrote, Syn March was gon. Thus the passage originally meant 32 days after March, i.e. May 2nd, the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, which took place in 1381. Readers apparently misunderstood this line to mean “March 32nd”, i.e. April 1st. In Chaucer’s tale, the vain cock Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox.

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An 1857 ticket to “Washing the Lions” at the Tower of London in London. No such event ever took place.

In 1508, French poet Eloy d’Amerval referred to a poisson d’avril (April fool, literally “April fish”), a possible reference to the holiday. In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on April 1st. In 1686, John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day”, the first British reference. April 1st, 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to “see the Lions washed”.

In the Middle Ages, New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25th in most European towns. In some areas of France, New Year’s was a week-long holiday ending on April 1st. Some writers suggest that April Fools’ originated because those who celebrated on January 1st made fun of those who celebrated on other dates. The use of January 1st as New Year’s Day was common in France by the mid-16th century, and this date was adopted officially in 1564 by the Edict of Roussillon.

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