Where did the tradition of using the first day of April as a time for practical jokes come from? Where did we get the idea of using this day to poke fun at others? April Fools’ Day is one of those unofficial holidays that is very much a part of our culture.
There are no resolutions from any level of government. There are no religious bodies calling for the day. But come Wednesday, the day will be observed in a variety of ways by many of us. My “Smart Phone” knew to place it on my calendar just like it was a real holiday. Most of us could remember as children being very cautious on April 1 before we accept anything at face value.
Since it is not really an official holiday, its origins in our popular culture is open to debate. The most commonly accepted theory ties the custom of “April Fools” to the changing of the calendar. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar. It has been named in his honor, the Gregorian Calendar.
Other than some adjustment to make the calendar more accurate, one major difference was for the New Year to begin on January 1 as opposed to April 1. Of course as with any change this major, it took a while for some to catch up.
Those who still followed the old Julian calendar were considered fools. It was popular to send them on a false errand, making fun of them being on the wrong calendar. One argument against this being the root of our modern April Fools’ Day Is that the day was popular in Great Britain decades before the Gregorian calendar was officially adopted. One difference in the way the British observe the day is that the jokes are limited to the morning only. This may keep it from growing weary as the day goes on.
Harvey Cox, a noted theologian who retired from the Harvard Divinity School in 2009, gave the possibility that the day had its roots in the medieval Feast of Fools. It was a feast, originating in Northern France, that gave opportunity for “the choir boy to play Bishop and for serious townsfolks to mock the stately ritual of church and court. This feast was later banned by the Council of Basil in 1431. Victor Hugo gave an account of the Feast of Fools in his 1831 novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Cox does not propose the Feast of Fools be revived, but rather that we need to relax and be able to laugh at ourselves. April Fools’ Day may not be a feast day, but it could have its roots in this medieval tradition.
Maybe, come April 1, we need to relax and be able to laugh. It is a day to stop taking ourselves so seriously. But I would warn you, if you set up another to appear foolish, make sure it is in good taste. This day is not a license for racism, or ageism, or sexism, or what have you. Also you need to be able laugh at yourself as well as at others.
The Welch have a proverb, “If every fool wore a crown, we should all be kings.” There is something in all of our lives that we could have a good laugh about. Mark Twain once said, “This is the day that we are reminded what we are the other 364 days.” He added, “Let’s be thankful for the fool; but for him, the rest of us could not exceed.”
In the last town we lived in, there was someone who had taken April Fools’ Day to a whole new level. Each year he or she would put up a temporary billboard somewhere in the community that poked fun at a hot button issue in our culture. Each year some office holders or group would the target of a joke. One year it was about a road being closed after that same road had just reopened after a much delayed contraction project. Every year it took a moment for many to realize that it was April Fools.
I believe we can be thankful for this brief break in the ordinary that April the First offers. It is a holiday when we don’t have to worry about sending a card or buying a gift. It is a time just to relax and enjoy our families and friends. But remember to keep it in good fun and the person one must be prepared to laugh at first is oneself.
B. Wiley Stephens is a retired United Methodist Minister and author who now resides in Covington