The funny thing is nobody knows how it got started. In living memory, and indeed back a century or two—even more—people have considered April 1 a day for jokes and fooling. Perhaps it was a kind of relief after winter was finally beginning to show its tail, or perhaps it was some distortion of Hilaria, the Roman festival of the goddess Cybele. Some have speculated that it had to do with switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar when many were confused as to what the actual date was. No matter what its origins are, April Fools has stuck. It has such resonance that even legislation passed on this date is sometimes questioned as to whether it is serious. Some locations have grand pranks planned and budgeted.
Nobody, as noted, knows how this got started. One of my personal favorites posits a biblical origin. Things tend to go back to the Bible in western culture, don’t they? This idea takes it all the way back to the tenth generation of the human race: Noah’s flood. Back in the eighteenth century it was suggested that Noah sent out his first dove before the waters abated on April 1 (this, of course, is based on knowing the exact days of creation—something that was of considerable interest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). Since the dove was sent on a “fool’s errand”—there was no dry land visible—well, April fools!
With rare exceptions this isn’t a day off work. It’s not a holiday with any religious implications, despite speculations about Noah and his dove. It’s really a day highlighting uncertainty. Practical jokes can, of course, be harmful. There can be those, such as yours truly, who might be slow to catch on. Indeed, almost always the victim of a “practical joke” doesn’t find him or herself in an appreciative mood. I’ve always personally thought the reference was to the weather. Snow isn’t unusual into mid-April in parts of the northern tier. In fact received wisdom suggests not planting annuals until May arrives. April’s weather, in other words, fools. Around here we’ve whiplashed through March with days in the seventies and others the coldest of the winter (or so it seemed). Now we’re into the first full month of spring. The early flowers are out (some of which succumbed to the cold of this week’s weather) making fools of us all. My hope is that none of us take this day’s unknown-origin holiday too seriously.