It’s April Fools’ Day and whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of a joke, today will hopefully be a day for laughter and good-natured conviviality. This holiday has a strange history that may reach all the way back to antiquity. Before the foolishness ensues, let’s take a minute to learn how this celebration began.
The most widely accepted origin of April Fools’ Day, also called All Fools’ Day, comes from 16th century France when the calendar was changed so that New Year’s Day was celebrated on January 1st (according to the Roman calendar) as opposed to celebrating New Year’s in late March or early April with the advent of spring. Not everyone learned of the change right away and people in the country, far from the cities, would have still celebrated a spring New Year. These people were mocked and called fools. However, Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego, California and an authority on April Fools’ Day, disputes this theory.
The French theory is completely wrong, because the day that the French celebrated the beginning of the year legally was Easter day, so it never really was associated with April first…Traditionally it was only a legal start to the year—people in France did actually celebrate [the New Year] on January first for as long as anybody could remember.
It is interesting to note that regardless of whether or not the origin theory is true, April Fools’ Day is still celebrated in France today, but the traditional joke is called a Poisson d’Avril or April Fish. The goal is to stick a picture of a fish to someone’s back. No one really knows where this joke comes from or why the fish is so funny.
Another possible precursor to our modern April Fools’ Day is the ancient Roman festival Hilaria. Celebrated on the vernal equinox (March 25th), the festival was held in honor of the goddess Cybele and her son and lover Attis. During the festival there was a day dedicated to rejoicing over the supposed resurrection of Attis. This particular day was filled with merriment, laughter and joking. Similar to many other festivals held during this particular time of the year, Hilaria was mainly a celebration of the end of winter and the coming of spring. People were joyous and wanted to revel in the changing of the season.
Although there is no clear link between the holidays, the word hilaria is the basis for the English words hilarity and hilariousness, both of which are certainly associated with April Fools’ Day.
Some say April Fools’ dates back even further to 536 BCE and the 13th day of the Persian New Year. This day is called Sizdah Bedar and is traditionally spent feasting outside, playing games and indulging in good-natured pranks.
Considering this history, Alex Boese believes the holiday grew out of the multiple vernal equinox and spring festivals that were held throughout ancient Europe celebrating rebirth and renewal. He notes that pranking and dressing up in costume were common in many of these festivals.
While we may never know exactly how April Fools’ Day came into existence, today it is celebrated in unique and interesting ways all over the world. In Scotland, they enjoy pranking so much they’ve extended the holiday to two days. In India, they celebrate on March 31st with the Holi Festival that includes throwing colored dust, wearing brightly colored body paint and playing jokes on one another. Denmark and Sweden celebrate on two different days. May 1st is a joke day called Maj-kat and April 1st is April Fools’ Day.
It’s clear that for thousands of years people all over the world have marked the coming of spring with a dose of humor. Possibly playing a light-hearted prank or two helps release all of the pent up energy from a long winter. But that raises a question. What is the purpose of humor? Why do we laugh at the proverbial slip on a banana peel or a derriere that misses its seat? Why for thousands of years have we sought that bubbly rise in our chests, that smile that crinkles the eyes and those guffaws that burst in explosive heaves of comedic delight?
Aristotle and Plato famously believed that comedy and laughter should be carefully controlled lest people become violent. Indeed, this perspective of humor claimed that it relied on a mean-spiritedness and a sense of superiority over others in order to be effective. This idea was later codified in Thomas Hobbes’ Superiority Theory of humor. Immanuel Kant’s Incongruity Theory states that we are amused when there is dissonance between what is expected and what actually happens. And of course, where would we be without Sigmund Freud’s idea that humor is a form of release for the human condition?
From antiquity to the more modern embrace of humor people have focused on such attributes as its health and anti-aging benefits, its role in social engagement, its nurturing of resilience in the face of adversity and its connection to creativity. Just consider Proverbs 17:22 from the Bible: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Or how about Charlie Chaplin’s quote “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
As we know, humor is culturally sensitive and what one group of people finds hilarious may not tickle another group’s collective funny bone. Yet, as is the case with everything we do at AntiquityNOW, we have found a commonality that has stretched thousands of years. To the Egyptians, the depiction of animals taking on human activities was amusing. Compare that to the legendary poker game that is a staple in man caves around the world.
So here we are, as others have been through the ages. Winter has waned and spring has sprung. Let the foolishness begin. Happy April Fools’ Day!