The History of April Fools’ Day

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The actual origins of April Fools’ Day are foggy at best. Most accept the idea that April Fools’ Day came out of the switch to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. Literary buffs however, will sometimes argue that Chaucer made mention of April Fools’ Day in his famous “Canterbury Tales,” which was written more than a century earlier. Still another explanation about the origins of April Fools’ Day emerged in 1989 from a history professor by the name of Joseph Boskin. This explanation was later revealed to be an April Fools’ joke in and of itself.

A Tale as Old as Time

The most widely accepted theory behind the origin of the popular day for foolish pranks revolves around the switch from the Julian calendar to Pope Gregory XIII’s Gregorian calendar in 1582. Previously, the New Year had been a week-long celebration that took place from March 25 to April 1. Under the new calendar however, New Year’s Day was moved to January 1. The reform of the calendar took place in France under the rule of Charles 1X. Since communication moved slowly in that day and age, news of the reform to the new calendar took years to travel. Those who did not receive the news for several years, in addition to those who refused to accept the new calendar, continued to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 1. Over time, these individuals were labeled as being backward and were teased for their foolish belief that the New Year began on April 1. This teasing eventually gave way to traditional April Fools’ Day pranks and joviality.

The Problem with Chaucer

There is certainly no problem with this great poet of the 14th century. The problem lies in the misinterpretation of some when it concerns the time setting of his famous tales.

In the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from “The Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer sets the time as “set Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two.” In the tale, a mischievous fox tricks the rooster, Chauntecleer, by playing upon the vanity of the foolish fowl. In turn, Chauntacleer fools the fox in the same manner.

Based upon the foolish nature of this tale, some have interpreted the time setting to be April 1. They thus make the argument that April Fools’ Day was actually being celebrated in some parts of the world before the change to the Gregorian calendar in 1582. More likely however, is the concept that Chaucer was referring to the anniversary of the engagement of Anne of Bohemia and King Richard II on May 2, which is 32 days after the end of March. At that point in history, many frowned upon the engagement. Anne later won over her doubters however.

History Repeats Itself

History repeated itself on April 1, 1986, when Boston University professor Joseph Boskin made a fool out of an Associated Press journalist, not to mention a large part of the nation. When approached by the reporter inquiring about the origins of April Fools’ Day, the history professor spun a tale about the court of Roman Emperor, Constantine. Boskin claimed that the fools and jesters in Constantine’s court boasted they could run the empire better than the emperor himself. According to the history scholar, Constantine was so amused at these claims that he granted a court jester by the name of Kugel the royal crown for a day on April 1. During his brief reign, King Kugel made a proclamation stating that day should henceforth be a day of absurdity.

Taking the good professor at his word, the Associated Press proceeded to print the story and the nation was set abuzz. It was later revealed that Boskin knew nothing about the origins of the day and he had just unintentionally pulled off one of the greatest April Fools’ Day pranks in history.

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