The history of April Fools’ Day, as explained nearly 200 years ago

April Fool - Baby jester

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April Fools’ Day is an old, old holiday — and was even pretty ancient when this history was written back in the 1800s. Find out more about this day of fools here!


From The Saturday Magazine, London – Volume 4 (March 22, 1834)

‘Twas on the morn when April doth appear,
And wets the primrose with its maiden tear;
‘Twas on the morn when laughing Folly rules,
And calls her sons around, and dubs thein Fools;
Bids them be bold, some untried path explore,
And do such deeds as Fools ne’er did before.

The following brief notice, extracted (chiefly) from Brand’s interesting work on Popular Antiquities, may be deemed acceptable by our readers at the present period of the year.

Like many a custom derived from remote antiquity, the fooleries of the first of April have been fancifully traced up to various origins, most of which, by their plausibility, lay great claim to our belief; the only difficulty consists in deciding between their respective merits. It will be well it any reason can be given for the existence of so absurd a custom.

Antique fools and jesters (3)

Poor Robin, in his Almanac for 1760, raises a most rational doubt, as to whether the simpleton who is sent on a sleeveless errand on this day, is a greater fool than he who sends him…

Tis a thing to be disputed,
Which is the greatest Fool reputed,
The man that innocently went,
Or he that him design’dly sent.

The French have their All Fools’ Day, and call the person imposed upon An April Fish, (Poisson d’Avril,) whom we term an April Fool. Bellinger, in his Etymology of French, Proverbs, endeavors at the following explanation of this custom.

The word “Poisson,” he contends, is corrupted through the ignorance of the people from “Passion;” and length of time has almost totally defaced the original intention, which was as follows: that, as the Passion of our Savior, took place about this time of the year, and as the Jews sent Christ backwards and forwards to mock and torment him, i.e. from Annas to Caiaphas, from Caiaphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod, and from Herod back again to Pilate; this ridiculous, or rather impious, custom took its rise from thence, by which we send about, from one place to another, such persons as we think proper objects of our ridicule. Such is Bellinger’s explanation.

Something like this (says the Gentleman’s Magazine for July 1783,) which we call making April Fools, is practiced also abroad in Catholic countries on Innocents’ Day, on which occasion people run through all the rooms, making a pretended search in and under the beds, in memory, I believe, of the search made by Herod for the discovery and destruction of the Child Jesus, and his having been imposed upon, and deceived by the Wise Men, who, contrary to his orders and expectation, “returned to their own country another way.”

The history of April Fools' Day, as explained nearly 200 years ago

Maurice, in his Indian Antiquities, speaking of “the first of April, or the ancient Feast of the Vernal Equinox, equally observed in India and Britain,” tells us, “the first of April was anciently observed in Britain as a high and general festival;” adding, some few lines further, “of those traits of the jocundity of our fathers, preserved in Britain, none of the least remarkable, or ludicrous, is that relic of its pristine pleasantry, the general practice of making April Fools, as it is called, on the first day of that month; but this Colonel Pearce (Asiatic Researches, Vol. II., p. 334,) proves to have been an immemorial custom among the Hindoos, at a celebrated festival holden about the same period in India, which is called the Huli Festival.

The Taco Liberty Bell? Taco Bell 'bought' the Liberty Bell on April Fool's Day 1996

‘During the Huli,’ says Colonel Pearce, ‘when mirth and festivity reign among the Hindoos of every class, one subject of diversion is to send people on errands and expeditions that are to end in disappointment, and raise a laugh at the expense of the person sent.'”

The Public Advertiser for April 13, 1789, gives the following humorous Jewish origin of the custom of making Fools on the first of April.

“This is said to have begun from the mistake of Noah in sending the dove out of the ark before the water had abated, on the first day of the month among the Hebrews, which answers to our first of April; and to perpetuate the memory of this deliverance, it was thought proper, whoever forgot so remarkable a circumstance, to punish them by sending them upon some sleeveless errand, similar to that ineffectual message upon which the bird was sent by the Patriarch.”

Antique fools and jesters (2)

April Fools’ Day: The customs of foolmaking

Another paper for the 1st of April, 1792, says, “No antiquary has even tried to explain the custom of making April Fools. The writer recollects that he has met with a conjecture somewhere, that April Day is celebrated as part of the festivity of New Year’s Day.

That day used to be kept on the 25th of March. All antiquaries know that an octave, or eight days, usually completed the festivals of our forefathers. If so, April Day, making the octave’s close, may be supposed to be employed in foolmaking, all other sports having been exhausted in the foregoing seven days.”

The “conjecture” just alluded to, was probably the following from the pen of Dr. Pegg, the venerable Rector of Whittington, in Derbyshire. It is to be found in the Gentleman’s Magazine for April 1766.

It is a matter of some difficulty to account for the expression, “An April Fool,” and the strange custom so universally prevalent throughout this kingdom, of people making fools of one another, on the first of April, by trying to impose upon each other, and sending one another, upon that day, upon frivolous, ridiculous, and absurd errands.

Court jester - Antique image

I have found no traces, either of the name or of the custom, in other countries, insomuch that it appears to me to be an indigenous custom of our own. Now, to account for it; the name undoubtedly arose from the custom, and this I think arose from hence: our year formerly began, as to some purposes, and in some respects, on the 25th of March, which was supposed to be the Incarnation of our Lord; and it is certain that the commencement of the new year, at whatever time that was supposed to be, was always esteemed a high Festival, and that both amongst the ancient Romans and with us.

Now, great Festivals were usually attended with an Octave, that is, they were wont to continue eight days, whereof the first and last were the principal; and you will find the 1st of April, is the Octave of the 25th of March, and the close, or ending, consequently, of that Feast, which was both the Festival oi” the Annunciation and of the New Year.

From hence as I take it, it became a day of extraordinary mirth and festivity, especially amongst the lower sorts, who are apt to pervert and make a bad use of institutions which at first might be very laudable in themselves.

“We will close our extracts with a further suggestion from the indefatigable antiquary, to whom we are indebted for the above notices, and leave our readers to select for themselves the origin, which they may deem the most plausible.

Old court jesters

Calling this “All Fools’ Day,” seems to denote it to be a different day from the Feast of Fools, which was held on the 1st of January: and I am inclined to think, the word “All,” here is a corruption of our northern word “auld,” for old; because I find in the ancient Romish Calendar, (which I have so often cited,) mention made of a “Feast of Old Fools.”

It must be granted that this Feast stands there on the 1st of another month, November: but then it mentions at the same time, that it is by a removal; “The Feast of Old Fools is removed to this day.” Such removals, indeed, in the very crowded Romish Calendars, were often obliged to be made.

There is nothing hardly that will bear a clearer demonstration, than that the primitive Christians, by way of conciliating the Pagans to a better worship, humored their prejudices by yielding to a conformity of names, and even of customs, where they did not essentially interfere with the fundamentals of the Gospel doctrine.

Baby folly - Court jester child

This was done in order to quiet their possession, and to secure their tenure; an admirable expedient, and extremely fit, in those barbarous times, to prevent the people from returning to their old religion.

Among these, in imitation of the Roman Saturnalia, was the Festum Faluorum (Feast of Fools) when part of the jollity of the season, was a burlesque election of a mock Pope, mock Cardinals, etc. attended with a thousand ridiculous and indecent ceremonies, gambols, and antics, all allusively to the exploded pretensions of the Druids, whom these sports were calculated to expose to scorn and derision.

This Feast of Fools had its designed effect, and contributed, perhaps, more to the extermination of those heathens, than all the collateral aids of fire and sword. The continuance of customs (especially droll ones, which suit the gross taste of the multitude) after the cause of them has ceased, is a great but no uncommon absurdity.

Woman with a harlequin jester

One epithet of Old Fools does not ill accord with the pictures of Druids transmitted to us. The united appearance of age, sanctity, and wisdom, which these ancient priests assumed, doubtless contributed in no small degree to the deception of the people.

The Christian teachers, in their labors to undeceive the fettered multitudes, would probably spare no pains to pull off the mask from these venerable hypocrites, and point out to their converts, that age was not always synonymous with wisdom; that youth was not the peculiar period of folly; but that together with young ones, there were also old (auld) Fools.

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