Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The origins of April Fools Day are obscure. In France during the Middle Ages, they celebrated Festus Fatuorum – Feast of Fools. These festivities centered mostly on parodies of church rituals and the election of a mock pope. But fools or jesters—the Medieval equivalent of stand-up comedians—were extremely popular and easily identified by their multicolored costumes, horned hats and scepters.
One controversial theory is that April Fools Day developed because of the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in France in the late 16th century. As this story goes, communication was slow and it took some time for news of the change to get out. People who hadn't heard or refused to accept the change became known as April Fools. (The eight-day new year's celebration was said to begin on March 25th and culminate on April 1st under the old calendar.)
None of this explains how the observation of April Fools Day came to England.
Perhaps Brits continued to follow a tradition brought by the Romans. Rome celebrated the festival of Hilaria around the Vernal Equinox in late March, when the Saxons honored Eostre, the goddess of fertility. Hilaria commemorated the death and resurrection of Attis, son and lover of the Roman mother goddess, Cybele.
Romans donned disguises and imitated whomever they liked during Hilaria. Universal licentiousness was the rule, much the way Mardi Gras is today. As a result, the word hilaria (from the Latin hilaris which means cheerful. and the Greek hilaros which means glad) came to refer to any festival of rejoicing.
April Fools Pranks
In France, paper fishes are stuck on the backs of hapless victims on April 1st. No one knows for sure why. It may be a reference to fish hatchlings which are easily caught in early spring. Whatever the origins, victims with a paper fish on their backs are referred to as Poisson d'Avril—April Fish.
It's interesting to note that when Napoleon married Marie-Louise of Austria, he was given the moniker Poisson d'Avril. Perhaps because everyone thought him a foolish old man for marrying someone so much younger? Napoleon was forty-one and Marie-Louise nineteen. Whatever the reason, French children used to sing:
We thought you were a nice Italian dish!
Instead we have discovered that you are a small April fish!
Throw him back, since May will get hotter!
But wherever you throw him, don't drink the water!
Hunting the Gowk is a popular April Fools pastime in Scotland. Its US equivalent is "snipe hunting". Gowk is the Scottish name for cuckoo, a bird associated with simplemindedness and tom foolery. Thus "hunting the gowk" is to send someone on a fool's errand.
The Scottish Tailie/Taily Day on April 2nd is similar to the French Poisson d'Avril, only this prank focuses on the backside. Paper tails are attached to victims' rears, much like pinning the tail on the donkey. From this tradition comes the expressions "butt of the joke." The "kick me" sign is also attributed to the Scots.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, a popular English prank was to invite gobemouches (literally, a kind of flycatcher. The word was eventually anglicanized to "gobby" which means someone who is gullible or foolish) to come watch the washing the lions at the Tower of London. No such activity occurred, although wardens there often received gratuities from individuals who wished to see the white bears fed.
In England, jokes are played the morning of April 1st because it's thought to be unlucky to prank in the afternoon.
Village of Fools
At least forty-five communities in England lay claim to being a "village of fools." But only one was immortalized in a 16th century chapbook—Gotham. Under the reign of King John, the English population was taxed close to starvation. Folks did everything they could to hide their wealth from his collectors.
As the story goes, King John was approaching Gotham with his entourage. At that time, any road traveled by the king became a public one. Local towns and villages were taxed to maintain it. To keep the king away, Gotham villagers feigned madness. (In the 13th century, insanity was believed to be contagious.) King John changed his route to avoid contracting the disease.
In another tale, King John planned to build a castle or lodge near Gotham. This would have restricted use of the local forests for wood and game. So the villagers pretended they were crazy and their monarch went elsewhere.