April Fools' Day

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April Fools' Day

All Fools' Day, April Noddy Day, Gowkie Day,
Huntigowk Day, St. All-Fools' Morn

April Fools' Day falls on the first of April. On this day people play practical jokes on friends, family members, and even strangers. Pranks often pulled on this day include putting sugar in the salt shaker and salt in the sugar bowl, gluing a coin to the sidewalk and watching to see who stoops to pick it up, and giving someone a false bit of news or information in order to enjoy their reaction. Sending someone on a fool's errand, especially one in which several friends conspire to send the person from one place to another in order to prolong his or her fruitless quest, is another old custom associated with the day.

Where did this observance come from? Perhaps the most plausible explanation for the holiday traces it back to the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582 (for more on the Gregorian calendar, see Easter, Date of). The Gregorian calendar set the beginning of each new year on January 1. Prior to that time, many European nations observed New Year's Day on March 25 (see also Annunciation). Some people celebrated the arrival of the new year with an entire week of fun and festivity. Begun on March 25, this week ended on April 1. When Pope Gregory XIII introduced the new calendar system, many Catholic nations adopted it immediately. Those individuals who forgot that New Year's Day had been moved, or those who resisted the change might still celebrate on April 1, however. They became the "April fools" whose forgetfulness or eccentricity aroused amusement in others.

Another explanation traces the holiday back to ancient Rome. On March 25 Romans observed Hilaria, a festival honoring the goddess Cybele and celebrated with laughter and rejoicing. Some writers suggest that traces of this observance remained after Roman civilization declined and floated a few days further ahead in the calendar, attaching themselves to April 1. This time of year also coincides with the spring equinox. Some commentators speculate that April Fools'Day pranks grew out of the high spirits associated with this happy time of the year when the daylight hours finally overtake the darkness.

Perhaps because April Fools' Day often falls close to Easter a legend sprang up attempting to forge a connection between the two observances. It claimed that sending people on fool's errands on April 1 memorialized the chain of events whereby the Jewish religious authorities sent Jesus to be judged by Pilate, Pilate sent him on to King Herod, and Herod sent him back to Pilate (Luke 22:66-23:12). Another religious legend about the holiday asserts that it commemorates the raven and the dove from Noah's ark, whom Noah sent in search of dry land during the great flood (Genesis 8:6-9).

The earliest historical reference to this observance dates back to the year 1656 and comes from France. Although the holiday had established itself in France by that time, it was not well known in Germany until the 1680s. It appeared in England, where it was sometimes called "All Fool's Day," at the tail end of the seventeenth century. By the nineteenth century people all over Europe observed April Fools' Day.

In France a person who falls for an April Fools' joke is called a poisson d'avril, or an "April fish." Indeed, in France one old April Fools' Day joke consisted of pinning a cardboard fish to someone's back without them knowing it. In Scotland the April Fool was called a "gowk" or "cuckoo." Playing an April Fools' Day joke on someone was known as "hunting the gowk." The holiday itself might be called Gowkie Day or Huntigowk Day. Other names for the observance include April Noddy Day and St. All-Fools' Morn. In Germany newspapers may attempt to hoax the public on April Fool's Day by printing false stories called Zeitungsente, or "newspaper ducks." According to German folklore Judas was born on April Fool's Day and Lucifer (the devil) was thrown out of heaven. Hence German folklore deems the day unlucky. Swedes also enjoy playing practical jokes on April 1. A Swedish folk verse declares,

April, April, you silly fish, I can trick you however I wish.

Further Reading

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Cooper, J. C. The Dictionary of Festivals. London, England: Thorsons, 1990. Festivals and Holidays. New York: Macmillan, 1999. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Primiano, Leonard Norman. "All Fools' Day." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 1. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

April Fools' Day

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Folkloric
Date of Observation: April 1
Where Celebrated: England, France, Scotland, United States
Symbols and Customs: Fish, Pranks and Practical Jokes
Related Holidays: Feast of Fools


Children have been shouting "April Fool!" since the 1600s in England, shortly before the custom was brought to America by the first English settlers. But there are a number of theories as to how it got started. One explanation points to Noah as the first "April Fool." It is said that on this day Noah mistakenly sent the dove out to find dry land after the flood began to recede. Another possibility is that it had something to do with the change to the New Style or Gregorian calendar.

The Gregorian calendar is named after Pope Gregory XIII, who in 1582 instituted a calendar that corrected time-keeping errors in Julius Caesar's Julian calendar, which had been in use since 45 B . C . E . In 1852 the Gregorian calendar subtracted ten days from the month of October so that October 6 was instead October 15. This shift brought the calendar more in line with the seasons. It also created Leap Year Day and established January 1 as the day of the new year throughout the Christian world. Catholic countries, such as Italy, France, Luxembourg, Spain, and Portugal, switched to the new calendar that year. Other European nations, predominantly Protestant or Orthodox, did not. Protestant Germany accepted the change in 1700, Orthodox Russia in 1706. Great Britain accepted the Gregorian calendar, and the New Year, on January 1, in 1752. By the twentieth century most of the world had accepted the Gregorian calendar for civic and business purposes.

Under the Old Style calendar, NEW YEAR'S DAY was celebrated around the time of the VERNAL EQUINOX in late March. Because this occasionally coincided with, or at least came close to, the celebration of EASTER, Church officials moved New Year's Day up to April 1. When the Gregorian calendar was officially adopted in 1582 and New Year's Day was shifted from April 1 to January 1, some people forgot about the change and continued to make their New Year visits on the old date. Others paid mock visits to friends and neighbors on April 1, shouting "April Fool!" at those who took them seriously.

April Fools' Day has been called by many other names-among them Huntigowk Day or Gowkie Day (in Scotland, where an April fool is called a "gowk"), All Fools' Day, and April Noddy Day (a fool in England is called a "noddie," "gob," or "gawby"). But all of these names echo that of the FEAST OF FOOLS, a popular medieval festival during which social roles were reversed and rules were deliberately flouted. The men would dress up as women, eat and gamble at the altar, burn old leather sandals in the censers, and engage in other activities that would normally be unthinkable. The Feast of Fools was especially popular in France, where April Fools' Day is widely observed.



In France, the fish is the primary symbol of April Fools' Day. Chocolate candy shaped like fish is sold everywhere, and people often try to pin a paper fish on someone else's back without getting caught (for which the day is called Fooling the April Fish Day). The people known as "April fools" in English-speaking countries are called "April fish" (poisson d'Avril) in France. Since fish begin to run in the spring, it is likely that the April Fish is a symbol of rebirth and fertility.

Pranks and Practical Jokes

Some scholars theorize that the custom of pulling pranks and practical jokes on April 1 is a relic of the ancient Roman festival in honor of Ceres, the goddess whose daughter Proserpine was carried off to the underworld by Pluto to be his queen. Ceres' day-and-night search for her daughter was considered a "fool's errand" because Pluto was a very powerful god. A similar connection exists between April Fools' Day and the Hindu spring festival of HOLI. Although there is no historical evidence of a connection between the two, it is interesting to note that one of the principal Holi customs is playing practical jokes and sending people on fools' errands.

A more modern explanation for the custom is that it accompanied the shift from the Old Style (or Julian) calendar to the New Style (Gregorian) calendar. People in France who couldn't make the adjustment were often sent mock gifts and called "April Fish" (see FISH ) or April fools. The custom of April fooling spread quickly throughout France and Europe. In England, the custom had already taken root in the early eighteenth century, even though the change in the calendar was not official until 1752.

In England, an April fool was called an April gob, gawby, or noddie. In Scotland, it was an April gowk or cuckoo. A favorite prank in Scotland was to send someone to deliver a letter. Upon receiving it, the recipient would tell the carrier that he or she was mistaken; the letter was meant for someone who lived farther down the road. Unbeknownst to the carrier, what the letter really said was, "It's the first of April. Hunt the gowk another mile." When the gullible person was sent back to where he or she started, everyone involved in the prank would gather around him or her and shout, "April gowk!"

Pranking was brought to America by British and French settlers. A classic April Fools' Day prank among children is to tell each other that their shoelaces are undone and then cry "April Fool!" when the victims glance at their feet. Sometimes the media get into the act, broadcasting fictitious news items designed to amuse or alarm the public. British television, for example, once showed Italian farmers "harvesting" spaghetti from trees. As other activities associated with the holiday-such as a Parade of Fools-have disappeared, pranking remains the only custom associated with this day.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.


Library of Congress www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/jb/modern/aprfool_1

University of Kansas Diversity Calendar www3.kumc.edu/diversity/other/aprlfool.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

April Fools' Day

April 1
There are many names for this day—including All Fools' Day, April Noddy Day, Gowkie Day, Huntigowk Day, and St. All-Fools' Morn —just as there are many practical jokes to play on the unsuspecting. One theory about its origin points to Noah as the first "April Fool." It is said that on that day he mistakenly sent the dove out to find dry land after the flood. Another points to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, when New Year's Day was officially moved from March 25 to January 1. People who forgot about the change were often mocked by their friends, as they continued to make New Year visits just after the old March date.
The simplest pranks usually involve children who, for example, tell each other that their shoelaces are undone and then cry "April Fool!" when the victims glance at their feet. Sometimes the media get into the act, broadcasting fictitious news items designed to amuse or alarm the public. British television, for example, once showed Italian farmers "harvesting" spaghetti from trees. The French call it Fooling the April Fish Day (the fool being the poisson d'avril ) and try to pin a paper fish on someone's back without getting caught.
In Mexico children play April Fools'-type pranks on December 28, Holy Innocents' Day.
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 247
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 460
BkFest-1937, p. 17
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 92
EncyEaster-2002, p. 9
EncyRel-1987, v. 1, p. 213
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 58
FestWestEur-1958, p. 34
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 191
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 268
OxYear-1999, p. 142
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.