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French April Fools' Postcard | © wacky stuff / Flickr
French April Fools' Postcard | © wacky stuff / Flickr
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The Very Confusing History Of April Fools' Day

Picture of Tori Chalmers
Updated: 29 March 2017
We’ve all been there. The moment April 1 rolls around, the salt shaker is substituted with sugar, your mum texts you about chickens laying square eggs (true story) and your mates are determined to catch you out with cellophane on the loo. Ah, April Fools!

But where did this surreal cross-cultural tradition shrouded in hilarity begin? Well, it started with a tribe of travelling mimes in Mongolia, back in the 18th century.

Troupe Of Mimes | WikiCommons
Troupe Of Mimes | © WikiCommons

APRIL FOOLS! The subject, like many great tales, is debatable

Amid the hazy origins, it’s true that some form of April Fools’ shenanigans are celebrated across the world. The first record of a recognised pranking day takes us back to 1392 in The Canterbury Tales, a series of 24 stories by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s narrative The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the Ellesmere manuscript describes Chanticleer, an egocentric cockerel, who is deceived by a facetious fox. Similarly, Hilaria, an ancient Roman festival of frivolity, predates most theories. At the end of the day, different cultures adopt different tales of origin as the truth. Oh, the irony – perhaps the whole world is fooled?

The Nun's Priest's Tale Medieval Depiction | WikiCommons
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale Medieval Depiction | © WikiCommons

When it comes to British banter, the rule of thumb typically states that all pranks must be implemented by noon. Be warned – the pranker who fails to adhere to this stipulation then becomes the fool! Names for the jokester and the unassuming victim vary across the board. For example, in Cornwall, the fool is a ‘noodle’! Other fool names in England include ‘gob’, ‘gobby’ and ‘noddy’. One account dating back to April 1, in 1698, states that people were lured into the Tower of London under the guise of witnessing the washing of lions. Then again, English thinker and natural philosopher John Aubrey talked of a ‘Fooles holy day’ in 1686, which some believe is the first British reference.

Always pushing the frontiers of humour, the gallus Scots thought it would be funny to extend this ritual – known as ‘April Gowk’, ‘Gowkie Day’ and ‘Hunt The Gowk’ – by an extra day, resulting in 48 hours of April Fools’ festivities. The word ‘gowk’ is Scots for ‘cuckoo’ or buffoon. Although many contemporary Scottish communities stick to the general ‘no pranks after midday’ rule, the second day is traditionally referred to as ‘Tailie Day’. This momentous 24 hours consists of derrière-related pranks! Some believe this is where the infamous ‘Kick Me’ sign began – we wouldn’t put it pass the Scots! Similarly, ‘Tail-Pipe Day’ is the alternative in Devon.

In France, this time of tomfoolery is called ‘Poisson d’Avril’ or ‘April Fish’. Yes, you guessed it – kids roam around pranking others by surreptitiously sticking a paper fish to their backs. April Fish are young fish and easily caught, making them extra susceptible to gullibility. Regarding its roots, the vague story states that the term is the doing of Napoléon Bonaparte on April 1, 1810, when he married Marie-Louise of Austria. These frivolous frolicking fish are portrayed on French postcards from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Poisson d’Avril is also recognised by those in Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and the French-speaking parts of Canada and Switzerland. Theories are traceable to 1508, where French poet Eloy d’Amerval mentioned a holiday called Poisson d’Avril. Still, the legitimacy of April Fools origins, is fishy nonetheless!

Poisson d'Avril | © tangi bertin / Flickr
Poisson d’Avril | © tangi bertin/Flickr

Another age-old classic practiced in Ireland and parts of Scotland is the act of sending people on their merry way with a named letter, in what can only be described as a wild goose chase. The lucky victim runs around like a headless chicken delivering this letter to multiple cunning persons who, in turn, send the butt further. The hoax is revealed when the letter is opened and contains the words ‘send the fool further’ or in Scots ‘Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile’. How this genius joke came to fruition, we can only begin to guess.

The Day Of The Holy Innocents on December 28 is the April Fools’ equivalent in parts of Latin America and Spain. Rooted in religion, the holiday has manifested over the years into a lighthearted version. As well as remembering the slaughtered innocent souls that fell victim to King Herod, communities now play tricks on each other, resulting in the jesters calling out some variation of ‘innocent forever’ or ‘ you innocent little dove that let yourself be fooled’. In Portugal, the Sunday and Monday before Lent is the April Fools’ Day rendition, where many chuck flour over friends. Communities in Poland also play pranks on April 1 and refrain from entering into any activities deemed as serious.

Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road? | © Cristian Bortes / Flickr
Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road? | © Cristian Bortes/Flickr

So, with April Fools’ Day and the accompanying pandemic of incorrigible hoaxes looming, just remember – chickens do lay square eggs and we may never know the full story behind the weird yet wonderful hodgepodge of worldwide jokey traditions. Besides, who really cares? Happy fooling!