OK, so I know many of you may not be in the mood for April Fool’s right now, but because, like a lot of people, I have too much time on my hands, and because I haven’t written about it before, I thought I’d write a little about the Day, and its origins and associations.
The origins of April Fool’s Day – also known as All Fools’ Day, April Noddy Day, and, in Scotland, Huntigowk Day or Gowkin’ Day – are obscure, though it is thought to have arrived in England sometime in the middle of the 17th Century, from the continent (France, Germany, Sweden, and Portugal have similar celebrations, and it was later exported to the United States). On April 1st 1698, several people apparently received invitations to the Tower of London to see the lions being washed (the Tower did, in fact, for many years house a zoo), only to be disappointed upon arrival. The Day may also have more ancient antecedents – it falls only ten days or so after the Spring Equinox, and its spirit is similar to Saturnalia, and to the Feast of Fools or Feast of Asses of the Medieval period: for a set time – in this case between midnight and noon on the 1st April – the normal order is turned on its head, and anyone, in theory, can perform harmless pranks on others. Young apprentices were often the victims of these, being sent on fruitless errands to “…fetch a pint of pigeon’s milk, a pennyworth of strap-oil or elbow-grease, a guttering-peg, or some other non-existent commodity… a pot of striped paint, or a soft-pointed chisel, or a box of straight hooks” (Christina Hole, British Folk Customs, Book Club Associates, 1976).
The Scottish equivalent is to send someone on a “gowk’s errand” (“gowk” meaning cuckoo or fool), where they carry a note that, unbeknownst to them, has the instruction, “Hunt the gowk another mile”, and the recipient accordingly sends them on to another house, and so on, until they twig what’s happening.
Over the last century, these tricks have migrated onto mass media, and there have been some memorable April Fools over the years here in the UK. I recall a piece on Radio 4 back in 1997 claiming dogs could speak, and, forty years earlier, the BBC’s Panorama programme made a piece about the “spaghetti harvest” which has attained near-legendary status:
But any April Fool has to be performed by midday, or the joke’s on you –
April Fool is gone and past / You’re the bigger fool at last.
(For more detail about April Fool’s Day and its origins, the Museum of Hoaxes is an excellent resource)