My brother was born on April 1 and Mom always referred to him as her April Fools’ baby. My sister and I pretty much know the origins of our brother, but nobody knows the origins of April Fools’ Day, and that’s no joke.
One theory has it that Europe’s switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in the 1500s, which changed New Year’s Day from late March to Jan. 1, created an easy opportunity to play a prank on the forgetful. But that doesn’t explain why April Fools’ Day is mentioned even earlier in writing, in Chaucer’s 14th-century The Canterbury Tales. There are many other theories, so what is the real and true history of April Fools’ Day? No one can say.
One year, a reporter from the Associated Press tried so hard for an answer that he fell victim to one of the bigger April Fools’ Day pranks in American history. Back in 1983, Boston University professor Joseph Boskin got a call from the press relations office, asking what he knew about April Fools’ Day. “I’ve been researching it for years,” he said sarcastically.
A few days later, the professor was flying to Los Angeles to interview Norman Lear, producer of All in the Family, to write a history of the television show. When his flight landed, he was paged by the airport, telling him to go to the nearest white phone. It was Boston University’s press relations office again, saying it had set up an interview between him and the Associated Press to talk about the history of April Fools’ Day.
“I said, ‘You know, I was just jiving,’“ Boskin recalls. “I protested and said I couldn’t do it. She said, ‘Oh no, you must call him.’”
Later that day, Boskin got on the phone with an AP reporter in New York City. “I said, ‘I know nothing about April Fools’ Day.’ And the reporter said something like, ‘You’re being modest… What are the origins?’“
Boskin finally gave up and spun a yarn that the holiday originated in Istanbul in the court of Constantine when “the jesters decided to unionize.” The king was so amused that he agreed to give up the throne to a jester for the day. The first-ever April fool was Kugel (Boskin thought of the name because his friend especially enjoyed the Jewish pudding), who declared it a day of absurdities.
“All I could hear in the background was click, click, click,” Boskin said, mimicking the sound of the reporter’s clacking typewriter. After the AP printed the story, Boskin got calls from the Today show and newspapers around the US and Canada. Only weeks later, in one of his history classes, did he reveal the hoax to his students. Unbeknown to Boskin, the school newspaper’s editor in chief was in the class, and the professor’s confession appeared on the front page the next day.
Boston U’s press office and the AP were livid. Boskin was able to keep his job only because he had tenure. The wire service’s New England bureau chief accused him of ruining the life of a young reporter, and the reporter himself called Boskin in tears.
“The New England chief accused me of lying,” he said. “I accused the AP of being sanctimonious. Rather than blame themselves [for failing to fact-check], they took it out on me. They sent out a story: ‘Professor lies about April Fools’ Day.’“ That’s the media for you. No sense of humor.
Today April Fools’ Day has become international, proving that everyone likes a good joke. In Portugal, April Fools’ Day falls on the Sunday and Monday before Lent. In this celebration, many people throw flour at their friends. In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is actually celebrated for two days. The second day is devoted to pranks involving the posterior region of the body. It is called Taily Day. The origin of the “kick me” sign can be traced to this observance.
The genesis of April Fools’ Day might have something to do with spring fever. Many cultures have had days of foolishness around the start of April, give or take a couple of weeks. The Romans had a festival named Hilaria on March 25, rejoicing in the resurrection of Attis. The Hindu calendar has Holi, and the Jewish calendar has Purim. Maybe there’s something about this time of the year, with its turn from winter to spring, that lends itself to lighthearted celebrations.
My brother is no fool, but he can be a lighthearted fellow from time to time, so there just might be something to that.