April Fools – 222 Years of Pure Comedy

April 1

Today you will tune into your favorite radio station to find it has been bought by a multinational corporation and changed its format to Spanish top 40

The web will inform you that Google has started targeting advertising content by monitoring surfers’ eye movements, brainwaves, and butt temperature

And you will pick up a magazine or newspaper to find that Microsoft has bought God. Or at the very least, merged with Buddha

Yes, today is April Fools’. A holiday we’ve celebrated since childhood though no one really knows why

The April tradition has been around since at least the 16th century

Holidays of a similar nature date back all the way to antiquity, though not specifically to April. During the Saturnalia masters and servants would switch places for a day. During its successor, the Feast of Fools, medieval folk could mock the church for a day without fear of reprisal. (Until the Church banned it in the 1400s.) If you remember The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Quasimodo was the King of Fools for a day for the celebration

But both holidays traditionally occurred in winter, not April. As for why the date April 1 was chosen to be the day of fools, we may have the French to thank

The story goes that before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, France celebrated New Year’s Day, not on January 1 but beginning March 25. The celebration lasted an entire week, ending on April 1. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 the date was changed to January 1—(the Romans moved New Year’s Day to January 1 way back in 153 BC, but I guess sometimes it takes 1735 years for a good idea to catch on.) It’s also been suggested that the date was changed so folks could still party on New Years even when Easter and Holy Week overlapped the March 25-April 1 dates

Just as in Rome when it took 17 centuries to get the word out, sophisticated Parisian hipsters made the switch, like, yesterday, while those less suave country bumpkins were still celebrating at the end of March. Any peon caught celebrating the end of New Year Week on April 1 was called an April fool. Except they weren’t called April Fools. They were called poisson d’Avril, or April fish, because apparently the fish are foolish in France. Hey, try saying that five times frast! Damn!

Anyway, the frou-frou French would frown upon their inferiors, deridingly bestowing upon their foolish friends gifts of raw fish, though fortunately for the French this tradition finally evolved to fake fish, foregoing the foul fragrance of the fresh

Britain, on the other hand, didn’t change its New Year until 1752 when it adopted the Gregorian calendar. Surprisingly, literature suggests that April Fools’ Day was celebrated in Britain centuries before that. Which begs the question, was English April Fools’ Day an import from the French?

Our theory is that April 1 was chosen to be the Day of Fools in Britain precisely because it was the first non-holiday after the New Year (assuming it’s true that New Year’s was celebrated all week long, like it’s still done today in places like Japan.) I base this theory on nothing but the fact that my friend’s preteen son created his own holiday, Opposite Day (a cross between Saturnalia and What’s Wrong With This Picture) and he chose for its date January 1. But since January 1 already had its own holiday they moved it to January 2. It seems a natural day to celebrate absurdity at the beginning of a new year: the kids can’t wait, and the parents can’t wait to get it over. A similar reasoning may have been behind the church’s Feast of Fools on January 1.

Our other theory is that this French Connection story is a yarn spun (and repeated) by desperate April Fools historians, seeking reason behind that which hath no reason. No, we believe April Fools is a retroactive holiday, and that it was homegrown. It had its roots in the newly established United States of America in 1789. Of all the practical jokes that have ever been played, none can top that of April 1, 1789, when the U.S. House of Representatives first convened.

So no matter what outrageous headlines the Harvard Lampoon, your school paper, or K-whatever try to throw at you today, remember, they’re a distant runner-up from the winner and still champion, the U.S. Congress, where they’ve been living up to their birth date for 222 years.

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