A History of Fools

By: Grainne Rhuad

In 1708 a correspondent wrote in to the British Apollo magazine to ask, “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” The question is one that many people are still asking today.

Nobody agrees on the history and origins of the celebratory day we have come to call April Fools Day. It’s become an international day of merriment and fun and everyone claims its origins from the ancient Indian festival of Holi, known as the festival of color, during which street celebrants threw colored powder and water at each other. This holiday was held on the full-moon day of the Hindu month of Phalguna (usually the end of February or the beginning of March); to the City of  Gotham, the legendary town of fools located in Nottinghamshire.

According to the legend, it was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the King placed his foot upon to become public property. So when the citizens of Gotham heard that King John planned to travel through their town, they refused him entry, not wishing to lose their main road. When the King heard this, he sent soldiers to the town. But when the soldiers arrived in Gotham, they found the town full of lunatics engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish or attempting to cage birds in roofless fences. Their foolery was all an act, but the King fell for the ruse and declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment. Ever since then, according to legend, April Fools Day has commemorated their trickery.

In 1983, Boston University Prof. Joseph Boskin got a call from the press relations office asking what he knew about April Fools’ Day. “I said [sarcastically] I’d been researching it for years,” Dr. Boskin recalled Thursday, in a telephone interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Ten days later when his flight landed in Los Angeles, the airport intercom called his name, telling him to go to the nearest white phone. It was BU’s press relations office again, saying it had set up an interview between him and the Associated Press to talk about the history of April Fools’ Day.

“I said, ‘You know, I was just jiving,’ ” Boskin recalls.”I protested and said I couldn’t do it. She said, ‘Oh no, you must call him.’ ”

Later that day, Boskin got on the phone with an AP reporter in New York City. “I said, ‘I know nothing about April Fools’ Day.’ And the reporter said something like, ‘You’re being modest…. What are the origins?’ ”

Boskin relented, spinning a yarn that the holiday originated in Istanbul in the court of Constantine when “the jesters decided to unionize.” The king was so amused that he agreed to give up the throne to a jester for the day. The first-ever April fool was Kugel (Boskin thought of the name because his friend especially enjoyed the Jewish pudding), who declared it a day of absurdities.

“All I could hear in the background was click, click, click,” Boskin says, mimicking the sound of the reporter’s clacking typewriter. After the AP printed the story, Boskin got calls from the “Today” show and newspapers around the US and Canada. Only weeks later, in one of his history classes, did he reveal the hoax to his students. Unbeknown to Boskin, the school newspaper’s editor in chief was in the class, and the professor’s confession appeared on the front page the next day.

BU’s press office and the AP were livid, Boskin says. He kept his job only because he had tenure. The wire service’s New England bureau chief accused him of ruining the life of a young reporter, and the reporter himself called Boskin in tears.

“The New England chief accused me of lying…. I accused the AP of being sanctimonious. Rather than blame themselves [for failing to fact-check], they took it out on me. They sent out a story: ‘Professor lies about April Fools Day.’ ” [Source]

Yep, the media loves April Fools Day, it is an opportunity to let out our belts and breathe a little like London media outlets have been doing on a semi-regular basis with the perennial “Washing of the Lions” Story which first got Londoners out to see a non-existent exhibition of Washing Lions at the Tower of London in 1698 and was last used as a media prank in 1860. 

April Fools Day and English Media are also responsible for the non-existent island nation of San Serriffe. In 1977, The Gaurdian created a fictional mid-ocean state of San Serriffe was created in a seven-page supplement.  Complete with, you guessed it, its own typography…yes that’s why you recognized the name. San Serriffe was one of the most famous and successful hoaxes of recent decades; it has become part of the common cultural heritage of literary humour, and a secondary body of literature has been derived from it.

We here at Subversify are much more serious minded and as we have already told you several times we love Blood and Gore with our Holiday Stories so here’s the April Fools Story we’re backing.   It was told to me by a Hedge Witch so I know it’s true…and I have been telling it to my family since birth so they will I’m sure, perpetuate its truthfulness.

Anciently, Kings were chosen based on their willingness to sacrifice for the good of the tribe.  This was true in most places, from the Tartars on the northern steppes to the Gauls in northern Europe.  Kings were given privileges yes because they were the strongest, but also because in times of trouble they could be counted on to sacrifice themselves whether at the head of a battle or in going to the gods and speaking for the tribe.  This was the origin of human sacrifice and it usually had to be done by one who could actually speak for the tribe and did so willingly.  Later sacrifices of traitors and criminals were and should be considered abominations.  Also coincidentally Hedge and Granny Witches, Druids and the like believe Jesus was indeed a “King” and this why he could be sacrificed thusly and take his message to god on everyone’s behalf.  They also believe this is why he told people they had to join his family or be lost from his (particular) message, because how else could he speak for them?

But that is another story for another Holiday.

In any case, as was reported by Julius Caesar and other writers, the “Wicker Man” was typically sacrificed in the spring as part of a renewing ritual.  By this time tribal kings were powerful enough and greedy enough to not honor the old ways and instead elected a “Straw King” or a false king who would be given royal privileges for a year and at the end of the year willingly be sacrificed to take the messages necessary to the gods, usually in the spring.  Any children sired by this King would have been coddled and probably raised in the Druidic or Shamanic tradition, as the case may be.   It is from this ancient practice that the term “King for a Day” was born although it was more like King for a term.

There are many stories of times in which for some reason or another, an intended sacrifice had no idea until too late as to why he was being sacrificed thus the “Fool” which became the “April Fool”.  It is believed these must have been foreigners unused to the customs of the tribes, most likely Romans or maybe even early Christians who didn’t understand the honor they were being given.

There were also tales of some who after their year of Kingship didn’t want to complete their commitment, hence the trickery.  They would dress in women’s clothes and try to sneak out of the villages or perhaps dress someone else up in their place.

As time passed and sacrifice of any kind, consensual or not was outlawed along with other gods, the tradition of switching places, and pranking in general lingered.

Anyway, that’s what the Hedge Witch told me and it’s as likely a story as any.  It sure beats the pants off the boring story the French have about fish and hatchlings which they call ‘Poisson d’Avril’ or’April Fish’.  Fish…how likely is that?