Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

Long range view of the ruined Rievaulx Abbey from high on the hillside of Rievaulx Terrace.

April Fools’ Day

And so we fly into April. Tempus fugit.

I was planning on an April Fool, but didn’t have enough foresight. And by the time I post this, it’ll be past the 12 o’clock deadline. So, instead, I’ll just post about the history of the tradition.

But first, my morning’s exercise. With the weather looking pretty dreich, I opted a revisit to Rievaulx Terrace as I knew the Iconic Temple was open to the public today. Inside was very impressive, but my photos were not, so the featured image is a view of the ruined Abbey from the Terrace. The Abbey was one of the greatest Cistercian abbeys in England until Henry VIII dissolved it in 1538. Nowadays, the ruins are owned and taken care of by English Heritage. As I walked past the entrance early on, the car park was filling and they were getting ready for a busy day.

And it stayed dry.

Rievaulx Terrace, inside the Ionic Temple – by Paul V. A. Johnson ©

Back to the origin of April Fools’ Day, this has perplexed researchers for centuries and remains unclear. According to one authority in Whitby1‘A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Whitby’. 2023. Google Books <https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=fNCZ2PG70sQC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=April%20Fools&f=false> [accessed 19 March 2023]:

“The custom of making April fools is said to have originated from letting insane persons be at large on the 1st April, when amusement was made by despatching them on ridiculous errands. April Fools’ Day is here called ‘Fœals Haliday,’ literally fools’ holiday.”

This is not implausible.

The tradition of playing tricks of folk is not confined to England. The Romantic poet, Robert Southey, noted similar celebrations from his travels in Portugal2Brand, John. “OBSERVATIONS POPULAR ANTIQUITIES OF GREAT BRITAIN. Vol. I. page 139. Footnote 2. <https://ia800905.us.archive.org/cors_get.php?path=/23/items/observationsonpo01braniala/observationsonpo01braniala.pdf> [accessed 19 March 2023]:

“On the Sunday and Monday preceding Lent, as on the 1st of April in England, people are privileged at Lisbon to play the fool. It is thought very jocose to throw water on any person who passes, or throw powder on his face; whilst to do both is the perfection of wit.”

Jonathon Swift, in his journal to Stella, under the date of March 31st, 1713, makes the entry3‘The Journal to Stella’. 2015. Gutenberg.org <https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4208/pg4208-images.html#:~:text=This%20evening%20Lady%20Masham%2C%20Dr.%20Arbuthnot%2C%20and%20I%2C%20were%20contriving%20a%20lie%20for%20to%2Dmorrow> [accessed 20 March 2023]:

“This evening Lady Masham, Dr. Arbuthnot, and I, were contriving a lie for to-morrow, that Mr. Noble, who was hanged last Saturday, was recovered by his friends, and then seized again by the sheriff, and is now in a messenger’s hands at the Black Swan in Holborn. We are all to send to our friends, to know whether they have heard anything of it, and so we hope it will spread.”

In France, the person being tricked is referred to as “Poisson d’Avril” (April Fish). This term is also used to describe mackerel, which were once abundant during this month and were considered foolish fish. Another explanation for the origin of the custom is that it is related to festive ceremonies that occurred during the vernal equinox. However, some believe that it can be traced back to the mocking of Jesus when he was presented before Pilate and then to Herod, and then back again to Pilate. Lastly, others argue that the word “poisson” is a mispronunciation of “passion.”

A humorous tradition in Scotland called “hunting the gowk” involves the tricking of someone. The person being tricked is referred to as the “gowk,” and although everyone else finds it amusing, the gowk does not. The process involves asking the gowk to deliver a letter that supposedly requests the loan of an item to be returned upon their return. However, when the gowk delivers the letter, the recipient discovers that it actually contains a message that is intended to be humorous4to, Contributors. 2010. ‘Hunt the Gowk’, Wikipedia.org (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.) <https://sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunt_the_gowk> [accessed 20 March 2023]:

“Dinna lauch, dinna smile.
Hunt the gowk anither mile”

Hopefully, the recipient of the letter will understand the joke. They’ll then pretend that they do not have the item and then send the gowk on a new journey by redirecting the letter to another person. This cycle continues until the gowk realises that he is the subject of the joke.

Similar customs exist in nearly every European country, although as we’ve seen, they may not take place on April 1st. One possible explanation for its origins is that it dates back to the pagan festivities that celebrated the arrival of spring. During this time, it was believed that the goddess Flora and other deities would play and dance in the woods5‘April Fools’ Day (Br John F. Blakeborough.) | Northern Weekly Gazette | Saturday 31 March 1900 | British Newspaper Archive’. 2022. Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003075/19000331/244/0014> [accessed 19 September 2022]. However, the true origin of the holiday remains a mystery.

Although the theories mentioned above are perhaps the most popular, there are many other possible explanations for the origin of April Fools’ Day.

While media organisations tend to run their April Fools’ stories, the day is mostly celebrated by younger members of the community who make significant efforts to prank their friends and anyone else they can find. Back when I was in school, the first year trick was to tell someone that their shoelaces were undone. In certain schools, the first student to successfully trick the teacher and make them an “April Fool” would even receive special commendation.

But just make sure it’s before twelve o’clock.






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