The origin of April Fool’s Day remains clouded in obscurity. Basically no one knows exactly where, when, or why the celebration began. What we do know is that references to ‘All Fool’s Day’ (what April Fool’s Day was first called) began to appear in Europe during the late Middle Ages. All Fool’s Day was a folk celebration and elite participation in it appears to have been minimal (which is why it’s so difficult to trace the exact origin of the day, because the people celebrating it back then weren’t the kind of people who kept records of what they did). But what is clear is that the tradition of a day devoted to foolery had ancient roots. As we look back in time we find many ancient predecessors of April Fool’s Day.
Throughout antiquity numerous festivals included celebrations of foolery and trickery. The Saturnalia, a Roman winter festival observed at the end of December, was the most important of these.
It involved dancing, drinking, and general merrymaking. People exchanged gifts, slaves were allowed to pretend that they ruled their masters, and a mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps (or Lord of Misrule), reigned for the day. By the fourth century AD the Saturnalia had transformed into a January 1 New Year’s Day celebration, and many of its traditions were incorporated into the observance of Christmas. In late March the Romans honored the resurrection of Attis, son of the Great Mother Cybele, with the Hilaria celebration. This involved rejoicing and the donning of disguises. Further afield in India there was Holi, known as the festival of color, during which street celebrants threw tinted powders at each other, until everyone was covered in garish colors from head to toe. This holiday was held on the full-moon day of the Hindu month of Phalguna (usually the end of February or the beginning of March). Northern Europeans observed an ancient festival to honor Lud, a Celtic god of humor. And there were also popular Northern European customs that made sport of the hierarchy of the Druids. All of these celebrations could have served as precedents for April Fool’s Day.
April fool’s day A medieval fool dispenses treats to a crowd
During the middle ages, a number of celebrations developed which served as direct predecessors to April Fool’s Day. The most important of these was the Festus Fatuorum (the Feast of Fools) which evolved out of the Saturnalia. On this day (mostly observed in France) celebrants elected a mock pope and parodied church rituals. The church, of course, did its best to discourage this holiday, but it lingered on until the sixteenth century. Following the suppression of the Feast of Fools, merrymakers focused their attention on Mardi Gras and Carnival. There was also the medieval figure of the Fool, the symbolic patron saint of the day. Fools became prominent in late medieval Europe, practicing their craft in a variety of settings such as town squares and royal courts. Their distinctive dress remains well known today: multicolored robe, horned hat, and sceptre and bauble.
There have been quite a few attempts to provide mythological explanations for the rise of April Fool’s Day. For instance, it was once popular to attempt to christianize the celebration by locating its origin somewhere in Biblical traditions. In one such version, the day’s origin is attributed to Noah’s mistake of sending a dove out from the ark before the flood waters had subsided (thereby sending the dove on a fool’s errand).