It’s the first of April, so it would seem appropriate to discuss the origins of April Fools’ Day. I’d intended to do just that, but when I tried to research the subject, I found it to be so dull that I almost had a near-death experience. In fact, the only interesting thing about the topic was how boring it all was.
Part of the problem is that April Fools’ Day has been around a long time. No one is certain how the tradition started, but its earliest references are written in Old English, and that alone can put you to sleep against your will. Chaucer, for example, wrote things like this:
“Herkneth thise blisful briddes how they synge,
And see the freshe floures, how they sprynge.”
Maybe there was a really tight deadline, and Chaucer tried to type without looking at the keys. All I know is, that’s way too many vowels. With each needlessly extended word, the mind stops to rest, and eventually grows drowsy and slips into a trance. After reading a paragraph or two of this nonsense, I can’t even remember what I was looking for.
Another obstacle to learning the story of April Fools’ Day is that it involves a lot of discussion about kings and popes. These aren’t the interesting kings and popes, either. They’re not the power-thirsty tyrants who sent armies on quests to sack foreign lands. They’re the small thinkers, whose loftiest ambition was to mess around with the calendar.
The first day of April was once the beginning of the new year. Or at least close to it. But in the sixteenth century, France revised the calendar to correspond to the Roman version, mostly because the Italians had invented the three-hour lunch, and the French liked the sound of that. Peasants living in rural areas, however, remained unaware of the change. Sophisticated city-dwellers would drop in on their less-informed friends and pretend to celebrate New Year’s Day with them. In olden times, this was considered to be great fun, which is one of the reasons I’m glad I didn’t live in the 1500s. Also, with rulers inserting entire months into the year and then plucking out days or weeks to fix their mistakes, I would’ve been even more confused than I am now. I’m pretty sure I’d have missed every single dentist appointment, not to mention the Emperor’s Day blow-out furniture sales, and my regular sessions with the oracle.
The most plausible explanation for playing tricks on your friends in early April is a condition that has come to be called spring fever. We emerge from our warm homes at the close of winter, tired of lame sitcoms and breaking news about another celebrity divorce, and we feel invigorated by chirping birds and warm air and fertile soil.
Imagine what it was like in the fourteenth century, when villagers were stuck inside for six months with nothing to do but draw pictures in the dirt floor and inspect their own extremities for frostbite. At the end of the cold season, everyone would burst through their doors and prance through the streets and across the meadows, feeling giddy, many to the point of delirium. The effect would be similar to that experienced by newly-released prisoners, freed of rules and restrictions, and eager to cause mayhem. And so, people would hide their neighbor’s cow, or rig up a bucket of water over the barn door, or hang their laundry in a tree.
In France, the day was called Poisson d’Avril, when people pinned pictures of fish on each other’s back. I guess when you have half the afternoon to sit around sipping wine and smoking cigarettes, you can come up with brilliant ideas like that.
Maybe I’m just out of touch, but it seems to me that the tradition is fading away. When I was a kid, April Fools’ Day was a chance to lie with a straight face, and without the threat of breaking a commandment and going straight to hell. We could tell the nuns the convent was on fire, or cry to our parents that the cat just got run over by a milk truck, and their momentary concern would be replaced by nothing more than a smile and a wagging finger. This kind of role-reversal had its roots in history, too. On April first – or so one legend goes – the court jester would ascend the throne for a day, delivering strange decrees and doing his best to humiliate his master. Of course, the hilarity would last for just those few hours. After the pranks were over, things would return to normal, and the real danger would begin. Like mothers and nuns, after all, kings and popes had excellent memories.
But I’ve wandered far from my original point. April Fools’ Day is tedious and drab, and not even worth our attention. As Chaucer himself might have said, “I have no intyrst inne discusing the mattr anye firther.”
Still, there are a few uneducated peasants among us who might find it amusing to kidnap a cow or booby-trap the barn door. So be careful out there. And watch your back, especially if you’re in France.