As the calendar change swept through Europe, those Frenchmen who stubbornly clung to April 1st as the beginning of the year, religiously held their festivals and celebrations—all the while, being dubbed “April’s Fools.” These stubborn fools would have pranks played on them and were dubbed “Poisson d’Avril,” or “April Fish,” the French term for an April’s Fool.
That sounds incredibly believable, does it not? I can even site many references to support this obvious historical fact. But, since this is April 1st, you know what I’m about to say, don’t you.
Apparently, this story is a myth—sort of like some of the Baulderdash definitions of words and phrases. By way of example, the phrase “trench mouth” came from medieval times when spoons and bowls were made of wood. The wood would soak up the liquid from stews and water and it would rot. Sometimes, unbeknownst to the owners, maggots and other really gross things would grow in the wood and would infect the eater when consumed. The bowls looked more like “trenches” than “bowls,” as we’re used to them, so the term “trench mouth” came to be born.
FALSE! From Dictionary.com, “A painful infection of the mouth and throat characterized by ulcerations of the mucous membranes, bleeding, and foul breath. It is caused by the bacterium Fusobacterium fusiforme in combination with the spirochete Treponema vincentii. Also called Vincent's angina, Vincent's infection.” Each entry notes that the phrase came about due to the high frequency of this infection among the men in the trenches during World War I.
So, how did April Fool’s Day really come about? That is an excellent question, and I am glad you asked! The honest and forthright answer? No one knows. But, that isn’t what you came here to read, now is it? So, let’s see what we can figure out.
The calendar-change theory sounds great on the surface, but if you stop to think about everything, you’ll find that it really doesn’t. The Julian calendar (introduced in 46 B.C.) started the year on January 1. As Christianity began to spread through Europe, however, the attempt was made to “Christianize” dates, or put important events on dates of religious significance. Some countries adopted January 1, others used Easter, and by the time the fifteenth century came to a close, the calendars of Europe were completely de-synced and a total mess. Around 1500, France adopted the January 1 date as the official beginning of the New Year, in practice. In 1563, Charles IX declared January 1 the official beginning of the calendar year and the French Parliament signed his edict into law in December of 1564. As you can see, the change had already been in effect long before it was declared “official” by the government. The French New Year, in fact, had no connection with April 1, historically speaking.
Britain, on the other hand, did. They celebrated March 25th as the first day of the New Year with a week of festivities that ended on April 1st. The British did not, in fact, adopt January 1st as New Year’s Day until about 1752—by then, April Fool’s Day was already well established.1
Truly, no one really knows when or how or even why this date became the practical joker’s holiday. But, reports as early as 1708, suggest that it was already a popular holiday in continental Europe. Some say it dates back to Chaucer, others say that not even Shakespeare mentioned it and therefore it could not have existed. Whatever be true about the origins, the day has become widely celebrated by young and old alike throughout the world.
For more information, or to view sources, please visit the following sites:
Museum of Hoaxes
The Fool's Day
April Fools' Day
Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, April 2, 1864