What fools these mortals be

Where did the concept of April Fools’ Day come from? I’ve never known, but this year I decided to find out. It appears that April Fools’ Day history is a bit murky, but there are a lot of theories out there. Here are just a handful.

The most common theory

During the Middle Ages in 1582, the existing calendar was revamped as the Gregorian Calendar by order of Pope Gregory. New Year’s Day was moved from March 25 to January 1. France adopted the new calendar, but communication was slow, and many people learned of the change much later. Others refused to acknowledge the calendar change and continued to celebrate New Year’s on April 1. These people were labeled “fools” by the general public. They were subject to ridicule, and sent on fool errands.

Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego, CA, disagrees with that interpretation. Boese believes that April Fools’ Day grew out of age-old European spring renewal festivals in which pranks and camouflaging one’s identity were common. Pretty simple.

A few other creative ideas

As late as the 18th century, an English newspaper article published in 1789 declared that April Fools’ Day had its origin when Noah sent his dove off too early – before the waters had receded. He did this on the first day of the Hebrew month that corresponds with April.

Another explanation comes from Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University. In 1983 he put forth the following theory. During the reign of Constantine I, a group of court jesters petitioned the king to allow one of their elected members to be Emperor for a day. Constantine awarded his jester, Kugel, that honor. Kugel decreed his day as a day of absurdity, and it became an annual event.

Think someone just made April Fools’ Day up and these theories are, well, simply that?

Notes: I don’t know about all the theories, but Boskin gave his story to the AP. The problem was, he made the whole thing up. It took a couple of weeks for the AP to realize that they’d been victims of an April Fools’ joke themselves.
All images are in the public domain. Left: This title page woodcut of the 15th century book, Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, served as the inspiration for (center, detail shown) Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, Ship of Fools: a ship ladened with and steered by fools goes to the fools’ paradise of Narragonia. Brant sears the weaknesses and vices of his time. Right: A traditional April fool’s prank: a ticket for the washing of the lions.

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