A tale of calendars and fish
What is April Fool’s Day?
On the first of April both in the U.K. and several other countries, we celebrate April Fool’s Day. It is a day of practical jokes which are played on unsuspecting victims and the prankster often shouts “April Fool!” at the victim at the end of the joke. This horseplay generally lasts until midday and is frowned upon after this this point.
A battle of calendars
The origins of this day are not entirely clear. However, this story begins in the Middle Ages in Europe, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582. This was a change from the old Roman calendar imposed by Julius Caesar. The Julian calendar had an extra day in February every 4 years, and was also, in a nutshell, 11 minutes too long. Over a long period of time, this had caused Easter to fall further away from the third week of March, when it was traditionally celebrated. The calendar was also out of sync with astronomical events such as solstices and equinoxes, of great importance in a world where electricity was yet to be invented. To solve these issues, the Gregorian calendar slightly modified the leap year schedule, explained by the U.S. Naval Observatory below:
“Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are.”
And in addition to this, there was more than one date designated as New Year. The Julian calendar had in fact originally designated January 1st as the beginning of the New Year, but during the Middle Ages European countries had placed more emphasis on days of religious significance, which in turn, had been superimposed on earlier pagan rites. Crazy as it may seem to us now, there were New Year celebrations beginning on March 25th, which was the feast of the Annunciation, (also known as Lady Day, referring to the Virgin Mary) and ending on April 1st. These dates coincided with the vernal equinox, when the length of day and night have equal duration. Ancient cultures such as the Persians/Iranians, still recognise this event around March 21st.
The papal bull which reformed the calendar had no jurisdiction outside the Catholic Church so it was first applied in Catholic nations such as France, Spain, Italy and Portugal amongst others. Protestant countries were much slower to use the Gregorian calendar, as they rejected its papal influence. Germany finally adopted it in 1700 and England followed in 1752. Changing the calendar meant that in 1752 England and the British Dominions went to bed on Wednesday September 2nd and woke up on Thursday September 14th, losing 11 days in the process. But from this point they were at least in line timewise with most of Continental Europe. Greece only began to adhere to the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Orthodox churches have never accepted it, although it is now the civic global standard.
So back in the European Middle Ages, people who considered that January 1st was the beginning of the New Year made fun of those who still followed the older calendar and finished their New Year festivities at the beginning of April. The earliest reference to these shenanigans dates back to 1508 when the French poet Eloy d’Amerval made reference to a “poisson d’avril”, literally an “April fish.” But why fish? And did you notice that 1508 just happens to predate the Gregorian calendar by 74 years? A possible theory is that it was forbidden to fish in April so jokes were played by throwing dried fish into the river and pretending they were freshly caught. Somehow these pranks got caught up in the battle of the calendars and have endured to date. In today’s France, the translation of April Fool is still poisson d’avril.
April’s Fool’s Day has become an annual custom in many countries around the world. In the Ukraine, for example, it includes a parade through the city, an international clowns’ festival and the city itself is festooned with disguises. Spain is an interesting exception where although the practice of pranking other people is alive and well, it is scheduled on December 28th , el día de los innocentes (Holy Innocents Day) and not on the first day of April.
The media have played some well-known April Fool hoaxes. In England, a famous April Fool’s joke took place in 1957, when the BBC showed a spoof documentary showing spaghetti supposedly being harvested from a tree in Switzerland. The voiceover was provided by Richard Dimbleby, a well-known and respected reporter, which lent gravitas to the spot. Hundred of people rang the BBC afterwards with questions about the “spaghetti tree”. It is only fair to point out that out that in 1957 pasta was not easily available to English people and spaghetti was a fairly unknown foodstuff. And maybe they were just more innocent times. In today’s world, where we have access to information at the touch of a button, it is very doubtful that this type of mass hoax would have the same effect.
Or is it?