By John Copeland

This week started frivolously with April Fools’ Day, also called All Fools’ Day or, as the French call it, April Fish. I know, April Fish, but you know the French always have to have their own spin to things.

No matter what you call April 1st, it is one of the most light-hearted days of the year.

Unlike many holidays we observe, the origins of the First of April’s tomfoolery are clouded in obscurity. Even today, historians and folklorists still debate how it started. Part of the problem is that it was only during the 18th century that detailed written references to April Fools appeared, but the custom was already well established throughout Europe and regarded as being of great antiquity.

I think it’s very curious that our April tradition of foolery became a part of the cultural fabric of so many European cultures without leaving a written record.

Holidays can be a bit like a layer cake. The outside is all colorful frosting and decorations, but when you dig in with your fork, you discover different layers with their own textures and flavors. Well, All Fools’ Day is like that. If you look at what our ancestors were up to at this time of year, a picture begins to emerge.

Nearly every culture in the world has had a festival around the spring equinox that celebrated the end of winter, the return of spring and the start of the year. The Romans, Persians, Babylonians and Hindus celebrated New Year’s with festivals that began on the equinox and ended on April 2. In fact, the ancient Roman calendar’s New Year’s Day was April 1. So it is likely that April Fools is a relic from these ancient festivities.

Even though April Fools’ Day has similarities with spring equinox festivals, there is no agreement about which festival our April foolery evolved from. One of the reasons is that many of the festivals were commoners’ celebrations, and aristocratic participation was pretty minimal. In the past, common folk were, for the most part, uneducated and did not leave written records. But folk traditions can run very deep within cultures, and it is clear that a day devoted to foolery has ancient roots.

The patron saint of All Fools’ Day, the Fool, was a prominent character in medieval Europe. Dressed in multicolored clothing, horned hat, and scepter, fools practiced their craft in public market squares and even in royal courts. Back then, it was the role of the court fools to put things in perspective with humor.

What is believed to be one of the earliest written connections to the day is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in the story of the nun’s “Priest Tale.” Written around 1400, it concerns two fools and takes place “thritty dayes and two” from the beginning of March, which would make it April 1.

Then there are the French. One of the popular theories about the origin of April Fools’ Day occurred during the reign of King Charles IX, when Pope Gregory decreed adoption of a new calendar — the one we still use today, the Gregorian Calendar.

In 1564, France adopted the new calendar, moving the start of the year from the end of March to Jan. 1.

Those who stubbornly clung to the old Julian calendar and continued to celebrate the New Year during the week between March 25 and April 1 had jokes played on them. Paper fish were surreptitiously stuck on their backs and called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish — which, even today, remains the French term for April Fools.

However, the calendar-change theory has problems as the origin of April Fool’s Day. The adoption of the Gregorian calendar did not occur immediately in France or anywhere else in Europe. It was a gradual process, spanning an entire century in France and even longer in other countries. Britain did not adopt the calendar until 1752, and long before this time April Fools’ Day was a well-established tradition. So confusion about changing of the calendar is not the whole story of April Fish. That is a “fish story” that has yet to be revealed.

Did you know that April Fools’ Day has a timeframe? Traditionally, no pranks are supposed to be played after noon. Any jokes played after that will bring bad luck to the perpetrator — something that is often overlooked today.

Although we can’t pinpoint how or when April Fools’ Day got its start, people the world over still celebrate it with glee. Pranks can be quite simple, such as telling a friend his shoe is untied, or very elaborate. On April 1, 2016, the restaurant reservation site Open Table promoted an app that allowed users to lick photos of food on their mobile devices to taste them.

Whatever the gag, it usually ends with the prankster yelling “April Fool!” when the victim falls for it.

The first of April, some do say

Is set apart for All Fool’s Day;

But why the people call it so

Nor I, nor they themselves, do know,

But on this day are people sent

On purpose for pure merriment.

— Anonymous


John Copeland is a filmmaker and television producer who has lived for 18 years in the Santa Ynez Valley, where he and his wife Shannon grow olives and make olive oil. He also works with MIT’s Experimental Study Group to teach undergraduate students in science and engineering the art of visual communication and storytelling.