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May 27, 2024

A Short History of April Fools' Day

By Dan H. Woods

According to popular lore, April Fools Day had its beginnings in the confusion as people switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1582. As legend has it, people living in rural areas (i.e. yokels) apparently didn't get Pope Gregory XIII's memo and celebrated the New Year according to the old Julian calendar which landed in April under the new system. Thus, they were "April Fools."

It's a nice story, but it doesn't pass the sniff test. First of all, the Julian calendar was never off by four months from the solar year. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted, the old system had only slipped from the solar calendar by 10 days -- hardly enough to become the basis for establishing of a worldwide day of pranks. The second problem is with the yokels themselves. To self-styled sophisticates "yokel" + "rural" = "farmer".

But farmers don't live their lives by calendars. Farmers, then as now, rely on the weather for important things like planting and harvesting. As soon as you get a decent thaw and the crocuses start popping up and any farmer worth his grain feed baseball cap will be out in the back forty planting the sorghum no matter what the calendar says. The only time a calendar is important to a farmer is for celebrating the holidays of their Deity-Of-Choice. And the leaders of their Religion-Of-Choice will pretty much map those out for them using their own arcane calculations(1), thank you very much.

The point is that farmers are more concerned with remembering to scrape the fertilizer off their shoes when entering their House-Of-Worship-Of-Choice than whether the feast day of St. Horatio The Feebleminded and Fine Purveyor of Hairshirts(2) falls on the last Thursday in May or the second Monday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox. For the sake of argument, if some 16th century yeoman did happen to wish you a "Happy New Year" in April and you replied "Ha, Ha", instead of following your guffaw with "April Fools!" you'd probably be saying something like "bone splintte", or maybe "concuffion", but almost certainly "payne killers".

The problem with making fun of folks who do manual labor is that manual labor tends produce enormous muscles and a deep dislike of effete pencil-pushers who think they are everyone's betters. It's not a situation that's conducive to the establishment of a holiday celebrating their stupidity.

Or at least not once they catch you at it.

No, despite what you've read, April Fools Day was the invention of the Hallmark Greeting Card & World Domination Company in 1916. In their secret underground greeting card laboratory, Hallmark's evil scientists dreamed of creating a holiday for each day of the year, but before they acted they needed a way to assess the world's susceptibility for ridiculous holidays.(3) Thus, the "fake holiday" plan languished for several years.

What prompted the company's executives to finally take action was learning that some countries (and I'm looking in Australia's direction here) celebrate more than one holiday on the same day. At that point they realized that with the right marketing, complete world domination was within their grasp.(4)

And so April Fools Day was born as a test study to see if people would accept a new holiday.

Hallmark used their printing presses to run up a couple of phony editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a few other key reference books with the bogus Julian/Gregorian calendar explanation. People began hearing the story so often, they ended up believing it without thinking about it -- kind of like your Mom telling you not to make a silly face or it could stick that way. (Earth to Mom: Not in a million years.)

The problem was that once the idea of April Fools Day had been suggested to people, they couldn't help themselves and got into the spirit of the "holiday" and started pulling pranks of their own. In the beginning, the jokes were simple like pointing at someone's shoe and telling them it was untied when -- get this -- it really wasn't! (Always a gutbuster.) And some early pranks failed miserably. On April Fools Day in 1920, The Tabasco Kid snuck up behind Wyatt Earp holding a #2 pencil and a sketch pad. His last words were, "Hey Sherriff, draw!" But eventually people got into the swing of things -- sometimes writing entire humor columns as a joke.

PS. Your shoe's untied.


(1) Probably using some combination of goat entrails, Field & Stream's solunar tables, and/or a Magic 8 Ball. (2) Canonized for eradicating the Great Tuber Weevil Infestation of 1414. (3) Such as Parents Day (July 26th), Boss's Day (October 13th), and National Call-in-Sick-Day (which is celebrated every day in France). (4) Which, of course, would also be good for share holder value. It was a win-win situation.

Dan writes a weekly humor column called Tomfoolery & Codswallop. You can visit Dan's website where he welcomes your comments and suggestions for future columns.

Article © Dan H. Woods. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-03-30
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