Some historians have linked April’s Day to the ancient Roman renewal festival of Hilaria. Celebrated on 25 March in honour of Cybele, the mother of the gods, the festival involved people dressing up in disguises. The day of the celebration was the first after the vernal equinox – the first day of the year which was longer than the night – and it was spent rejoicing a new, better season and the end of the gloomy winter. All manner of games and amusements were allowed during Hilaria; masquerades, in which people wearing a disguise could imitate whomever they liked, were particularly popular.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1392) contains the first recorded association between April 1 and foolishness. The narrative The Nun’s Priest’s Tale from the Ellesmere manuscript, describes Chanticleer, a vain cockerel who is deceived by a facetious fox.
One theory has April Fool’s Day originating in 16th century France. In the Middle Ages most European towns celebrated New Year’s Day on 25 March, but in 1564 France formally changed to the modern Gregorian calendar, thereby moving the celebration of New Year from the last week of March to 1 January. According to popular folklore, some people were slow to get the news that New Year had moved and those who had adopted the new calendar played tricks on the ‘fools’ who continued to celebrate New Year in March.
In France and others areas of Europe, such as Italy, Belgium and Switzerland, the April 1 tradition is often known as Poissons d’Avril, literally ‘April Fish’, traced back to 1508 when French poet Eloy d’Amerval mentioned a holiday called ‘Poisson d’Avril’. Another theory is that fish in April are generally young and easily caught, making them susceptible to gullibility. A common custom in France on 1 April is to attempt to attach a paper fish to someone’s back without them noticing.
In Scotland April Fool’s Day was traditionally called ‘Huntigowk Day’, a derivation of ‘Hunt the Gowk’, ‘Gowk’ being Scots for a cuckoo or foolish person. This Scottish tradition became a two-day event in which people were sent on phony errands (Hunkting the Gowk), followed by Tailie Day which involved playing pranks such as pinning fake tails or ‘kick me’ signs on people’s derrieres. ‘Tail-Pipe Day’ is the equivalent in Devon.
In British folklore April Fool’s Day is associated with a 13th century event in Gotham in Nottinghamshire. According to legend, King John had either decided to acquire some land in Gotham for a hunting lodge, an idea which was not very popular with the local townsfolk, or he would be travelling through the town (in the 1400s, any road the king placed his foot on became public property). Not wanting to lose their land or road, the townsfolk decided upon a cunning plan to dissuade the king from visiting – they decided to ‘play the fool’ by carrying out all manner of crazy and foolish activities, such as trying to cage birds in roofless cages, or drowning fish. The King sent his soldiers, but when they arrived all they saw was a town full of lunatics. Although it was all an elaborate act, this was enough for the King to choose somewhere else and proclaim that the town was too foolish for him to pass through. April Fools’ Day is therefore seen as a mark of Gotham’s victory over King John.