April 1st has become traditionally known as April Fools’ Day. However the origin of April Fools’ Day is a bit murky.
There are some who suggest the origin of April Fools’ Day connects to an early Roman Festival known as Hilaria (Latin for “Joyful”, and yes, the root of the word “hilarious”).
The festival involved dressing in costumes and mocking fellow citizens, and particularly politicians. Its celebrations included parades, masquerades and jokes to celebrate the first day after the vernal equinox.
For others, the origin is even older, dating back to Ancient Egypt and traditions around the worship of Isis, Osiris and Seth.
In Northern Europe, there is a belief that April Fools’ Day connected to the Spring Equinox, and that Mother Nature fooled people with unpredictable weather, and that the tradition of “pranks” evolved as the coming of spring marked the beginning of a new year, which was a particular jocular or happy time after the long the winter months.
Other beliefs suggest that April Fools’ Day might trace its origins back to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1392, where a transcription error seemingly indicated the date of March 32nd.
In Scotland in the 18th Century, early connection to April Fools’ Day revolved around “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool), followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them.
Many historians believe the tradition of the day connects most strongly to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in France in 1582.
Previously France had followed the Julian calendar, where the New Year began on April 1 instead of January 1. Reportedly people who were slow to convert to the new calendar became the focus of jokes and ridicule and were referred to as “April fools”.
These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.
In 1769, the London Public Advertiser newspaper suggested the origin was Biblical, referring to Noah and the ark, and that Noah first sent the dove to look for land on April 1, before the flood had dissipated.
There are references to April Fools’ Day being marked by British soldiers in Montreal in 1868, the earliest such reference to the day in Canada, but even that source is a bit elusive.
One article suggests that it was residents playing tricks on the soldiers, while another report indicates that it was the soldiers dressing up and ridiculing residents.
Locally we find a reference to April Fools’ Day in the Port Credit Weekly in 1938, the earliest local reference we have found to date, but as with most traditions, its traditions were likely in practice long before newspapers started sharing the stories.
What is clear is that the origins of April Fools’ Day are anything but clear.