What are the origins of April Fools’ Day and where does it come from?

April Fools' Day origins - where does it come from?

The Canterbury Pilgrims from Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales' © The British Library Board

These days, it seems the first day of April is one which is usually approached with a sense of caution by most people.

One of the reasons for this is because there is always the risk that you may believe a story you come across – only to discover later that it was a hoax and part of a practical joke.

While most of us are used to the day itself by now, it is the origins of April Fools’ Day which continues to be disputed – with several prominent theories about how the day emerged.

Here, we take a look at some of the origin stories for April Fools’ Day:

The Nun’s Priest Tale

The earliest claimed origin of April Fools’ Day points towards a series of verses and prose called The Canterbury Tales.

Written in 1392 by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales is centred around 30 pilgrims and their pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett.

One tale, The Nun’s Priest Tale, sees a rooster try to outwit a fox in order to live – but the link to the legend centres on an extract from the text.

In the tale, the line ‘syn March bigan thritty dayes and two’ is written and is the source of the dispute.

Some historians reckon that Chaucer make a mistake and accidentally dated the piece as March 32nd and intended to write 32 days after March.

On the other hand, others believe that the date was intentional and meant as a joke, and that instead of reading as March 32nd, the date should read as April 1st, hence the birth of the term ‘April Fools”.

The Fool’s Errand

A Dutch oil painting from the 1500’s entitled ‘A Laughing Fool’. Image sourced from Library of Congress Blogs

Another suggestion as to where April Fools’ Day first appeared points at several traditions which exist to mark the start of Spring, and with it, the New Year.

Such examples include the Hilaria festival which was held by the ancient Romans around March 25 to mark the occasion and Holi, celebrated by the Hindu community on March 20.

In October 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered the use of a new calendar – now known as the Gregorian calendar – which saw the start of the new year moved to January 1st.

It is believed that many people refused to recognise the changes and continued to celebrate the new year in accordance with the start of Spring.

Because of this, people started to poke fun with ‘fool’s errands’, where they would send someone to look for something that doesn’t exist or alternatively tried to convince them something was true when they were indeed false.

However, this origin story is also disputed because, in 1561, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote a poem about a nobleman who sent their servant on a goose chase in a similar vain.

The Washing of the Lions

An example of the bogus invite for The Washing of the Lions hoax during the 1850’s . Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons

Over time, the ‘fool’s errand’ had swept across Europe and variations of the hoax were starting to form.

One example occurred in the 1850’s, with invitations being sent out for an annual ceremony at The Tower of London, known as The Washing of the Lions.

Signed by ‘senior warden’ Herbert de Gassen, recipients of the invite were under the impression that the event would be in a historic and royal setting.

Unfortunately, those who made the trip down to the Tower of London were to discover that they had been duped into the charade after failing to notice the date – April 1st

Although there is no record of how many people were actually fooled by the invite, a replica was displayed at the White Tower as part of a exhibition that opened in 2011.