One of the reasons you have trouble sleeping is that you’re haunted by the question, “what is the origin of April Fools’ Day?” The answer won’t cure your insomnia, I’m afraid, because it’s “no one really knows”. There are many theories, most of which have to do with the change of seasons around this time of year. The most frequently suggested hypothesis has to do with the change of calendars.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII tossed out the Julian calendar, which had been a pet project of Julius Caesar. The pope modestly allowed people to call his creation the Gregorian Calendar, and it’s the one we still use today. Gregory decreed that the new year started on January 1st, while under the Julian calendar, the Rose Parade was held around April 1st.
The connection to April Fools’ Day is that there were some people who either resisted changing to the new calendar or hadn’t gotten the word about it yet. These people were considered prime targets for pranks or hoaxes. Since they were presumed to be fools, they were sent off on “fool’s errands”.
The problem with this hypothesis is that the whole world didn’t adopt the Gregorian Calendar at the same time. The British (and their American colonies) didn’t get around to it until 1752, but April Fools’ pranks were already a long-established practice in England by then, dating back several centuries.
Incidentally, the French call April 1st Poisson d’Avril, which literally means “April Fish”. To Parisian prankster purists, the joke is supposed to be fish-related in some way. This is reputed to be an old favorite: While in a phone conversation, ask the other party to “hold the line”. Then, after a minute or two, punch back in and say, “have there been any bites?” (As if it was a fishing line, get it? Hilarious.)
So I can’t fix your sleepless nights, but the following story might make you drowsy…
My father was what you could call humor-impaired. He had a grab bag of stale jokes he had memorized, but there was very little in life that genuinely struck him as amusing. Once a year, though, his funnybone regained some feeling; on April 1st he would attempt an April Fool prank. It was usually the same one.
Dad was the branch manager of a bank for many years; this was back in the ’50s and ’60s — pre-computer days. Account records were all kept on paper and stored on library shelves in the bank’s basement. As you might imagine, there was a huge quantity of paperwork on file down there.
So this is how my father’s prank worked. On a slip of paper he would write this “name”: A. Purl Fuel. He would give it to an unsuspecting employee and instruct them to bring up the account records for the person whose name was on the piece of paper. The employee would obediently go search in the archives, sometimes for an hour or more. Once in a while the victim of this prank caught on fairly quickly, but usually the employee would return to my dad empty-handed and frustrated. The employee would insist — correctly — that there was no such account. “Are you sure?” my father would ask, and then say something like, “there was nothing under that name on the paper? Look again, what’s the name?” Once the employee said it aloud, they caught on. And my dad would have his annual laugh. Good one, huh? Because he or she needed to keep the job, the employee didn’t stab my dad in the neck with a fountain pen.
If you’ve been the victim or perpetrator of an April Fools’ Day prank, feel free to share it under “Comments”. I promise I won’t do anything tricky or mean. No, really, I won’t.