Drowning Fish, Flying Penguins and April Fools

“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”—George Carlin


April Fool virus alert

Appropriately enough, the origin of April Fools Day (or April Fool’s or April Fools’ – it sort of depends on the context) is thoroughly confused and the source of much debate, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Suffice it to say that I won’t be putting forth any conclusive evidence, or even firmly held opinions, about which theory may be correct. If there’s any holiday whose genesis should be shrouded in mystery and embraced as such, it’s this one.

What is known is that by the 17th century, the custom of playing pranks on April 1 was a well-established tradition all across Europe. It is also known that its origin dates back much further than this. Things didn’t become widespread customs overnight back then, and written records from the time make it clear that this ritual had been going on for quite some time. The most commonly cited story of how this day of socially acceptable foolishness began is also most likely false, naturally. It generally goes something like this.

The Julian calendar was established by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE and designated January 1 as the start of the new year. However, as Christianity spread across Europe, people wanted a date for the beginning of the year that was more aligned to their religion, such as Christmas or Easter. For some reason, Easter won out, even though it was a much worse choice. The day on which Easter falls changes yearly based on its being observed on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (and therefore also connected to pagan rituals – gasp of horror!). This makes it an extremely unstable day for designating the beginning of anything, so some countries resolved this problem by having the new year start on March 25, although January 1 was still designated as the beginning of the new year by some governments, making the whole situation an unregulated mess.

In 1583, Pope Gregory stepped in and made January 1 the official first day of the year for the Catholic Church (hence the name of the Gregorian calendar), and most Christian countries fell in line fairly quickly. So the story goes that those who stuck to the old system became the objects of ridicule, or April Fools. The problem here is easy enough to spot. April 1 was not the beginning of the year for anyone, so why weren’t they called March 25 fools? The rationalization that it doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily just doesn’t cut it.

Mary holding a positive home pregnancy testWhat has been suggested as a possible explanation for this discrepancy is that it had something to do with the Feast of Annunciation, an eight day celebration that began on March 25 and ended on April 1. The first day of Annunciation was March 25 because it’s exactly nine months before Christmas, so that’s the day they figured that God boinked Mary, which could explain why the Old Testament God was so grumpy while the New Testament God was all love and forgiveness. In any case, you gotta hand it to the Big Guy. A pregnant virgin might be the ultimate April Fools joke, even if it was a few days early. He’s God. He can do that.

So mystery solved, right? Nope, because possibly the first written reference to April Fools Day came from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, c. 1392, nearly 200 years before all of the aforementioned calendrical controversy. The story has to do with a cocky rooster (pun thoroughly intended) that got tricked by a fox and was nearly eaten as a result. The possible April Fools connection is the date given on which the story begins. The passage in question reads:

When that the monthe in which the world bigan

That highte March, whan God first maked man

Was complet, and passed were also

Syn March bigan thritty days and two

So the story begins 32 days after the beginning of March, which is April 1, except that it also says that March was “complet,” and 32 days after the end of March would put the date at May 2, although April Fools is still in the mix since the day March is officially “complet” is April 1.

Most English lit scholars prefer the second interpretation, and while I’m sure that these guys know a lot more about Chaucer than I do, I get the distinct impression that these stuffed shirts just don’t want one of their literary heroes associated with April Fools for some reason. This seems a bit strange to me since Chaucer was the Lenny Bruce (or Penthouse Forum) of his time. They sometimes go so far as to change the last line to “Syn March was gon,” which seems pretty presumptuous to me. One medieval historian has put forth the theory that Chaucer was being deliberately ambiguous about the date to parody the philosophers of his time. A lot of those guys do like to make things as confusing as possible in order to prove to themselves how much smarter than everyone else they are. (I had a lit professor who referred to this as physics envy.) Good for Chaucer if he was putting those smug bastards in their place. On the other hand, I’m just whimsical enough to consider that this ambiguity was Chaucer’s April Fools prank on the literary scholars of the future. If so, mission accomplished.

And just to belabor the point, why phrase this in such a way that April 1 is implicated no matter how it is interpreted? It seems to me that Chaucer was going out of his way to make sure that April Fools was associated with his story of the cock that got fooled. If not, why bother mentioning a specific date at all, and why be so enigmatic about it? Just further proof that literary scholars really don’t understand writers at all.

Poisson d'Avril cardSo if people were already playing April Fools jokes back in the 1300s, then the whole calendar change theory loses a lot of its traction. But as always, the French come to the rescue…sort of. We do know that when the French officially changed their calendar to make January 1 the start of the year in 1564, those who stubbornly refused to go along were pranked by having a paper fish surreptitiously attached to their backs, and were referred to as Poisson d’Avril (April Fish). The significance of the fish is unclear, although it may have had to do with how easy it was to catch young fish in the spring, but April Fish is still the French term for an April Fool, and this practice is the first incontrovertible example of people being goofed on for being fools in April. However, this still doesn’t account for Chaucer and a few other earlier references to the day of fools.

There are several other theories for the origin of April Fools, but they’re even more farfetched than any and all of the above. It’s sort of like the hamburger. Every city or country that can conceivably take credit for its creation, no matter how tenuous their claim might be, does so. My favorite of these involves the town of Gotham in central England, not to be confused with Gotham City, which is where Batman lives. Legend has it that back in the 13th century, any road that the king walked on became a public road. When the citizens of Gotham heard that King John was planning to pass through their town, they were afraid of losing control of their main road and refused him entry. When John sent his soldiers into town to straighten these people out on a few things, they reported back to him that they had discovered the people there engaged in activities such as trying to drown fish and catch birds in topless cages. Of course it was all a trick to fool the king into thinking that they were too simple-minded to be held accountable for their actions, but it allegedly worked. The king was convinced that these people were too stupid to be punished. This supposedly took place on April 1, and so April Fools Day was born…except that it wasn’t because this never really happened. He actually had the entire population of the town impaled. Just kidding. #WWVD

One of the most vague but widely accepted theories for the beginning of this tradition is that it was an offshoot from one of the various renewal festivals celebrated all across Europe at the time, as well as in other parts of the world. These festivals commemorate the end of winter and the “rebirth” of the world with the arrival of spring. This doesn’t make for a particularly amusing explanation, but it may be as close to the truth as anything.

One of the earliest forms of pranks consisted of sending the mark on what has come be known as a “fool’s errand.” Traditionally, a person would be given a sealed message that was supposedly a plea for help regarding some dire situation. Actually, the note explained to the recipient that it was all a joke and to send the messenger to yet another person who would be better able to render assistance. In theory, the poor courier could be kept running around town all morning.* Two of the better, more recent gags were both pulled off by the BBC. In 1957, they ran a story about CGI flying penguinsthe Swiss spaghetti harvest, which showed farmers picking strands of pasta from spaghetti trees. By the next day, they had received so many inquiries from people wanting to know where they could get a spaghetti plant that they were forced to issue a statement admitting that it had been a joke. Then in 2008, with the aid of computer animation, they were able to produce convincing images for a fake movie trailer documenting the migration of flying penguins from Antarctica to the rainforests of South America.

And finally, I have to give an honorable mention to Burger King, who took out a full-page ad in the April 1, 1998 edition of USA Today† to introduce their new left-handed Whopper. Over the next several days, thousands of people turned out to sample the new sandwich, while many others specified that they wanted the standard right-handed variety. I don’t know if any of them did this, but it would have been even more hilarious if some of the restaurants decided to humor their patrons by announcing “I need two rights and one left Whopper to go,” and then marked them with an “L” or “R” so that people could tell them apart. That’s what I would have done, but I’m an a-hole.


*I say “all morning” instead of “all day” because it was customary at the time for pranks to only be pulled before noon. After that, the prankster was considered to be the fool for not knowing the rules.

†Whether their decision to run the ad in USA Today had anything to do with this publication’s nickname McPaper is unknown.

and all the devils are here



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