History records the era of fools

Court jester

Thankfully, 2021 has emerged from the containment of the pandemic scourge to offer us a vision of optimistic hope and better health. So, we have commenced the year as usual with the month of January, named after the Roman god Janus, then moved on to a short February, followed by a long March, then on to April, named after the word aperire which means “to open” — this is the month when the flower buds open. Then comes the hot summer and its simmering May we have to put up with, before the cooling showers of June, July and August, and then again the tolerable heat of September, October before November heralds the winter that takes us to the finale of December.

In this calendar journey, we cannot overlook one of the most light-hearted days of the year — April Fools’ Day, celebrated in many countries, particularly in the West, on April 1. It marks the day when hoaxes as well as practical jokes are played on people. The April Fool’s Day tradition appears to have started in France in the 16th century, when King Charles IX decided to make the year 1564 only nine months long and ordered January 1 to be New Year’s Day instead of April 1, as had been the custom.

A paper fish being hung on the back of a boy as an April Fools' Day joke
In France and Belgium, an April Fools’ Day tradition involves hanging a fish on the back of an unsuspecting victim.

Many theories are put forward for its origin. But the theory about its being linked to the reform of the Gregorian calendar in the late 16th century is thought to be the most widely-accepted. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar — the Gregorian Calendar — to replace the old Julian Calendar, for use throughout Christendom. The new calendar called for New Year’s Day to be celebrated on January 1 instead of the usual April 1.

People accordingly wished each other a ‘Happy New Year’ and exchanged traditional gifts the following January 1. But when April 1 did arrive, folks continued exchanging presents just for a laugh. Some see it as a celebration related to the turn of the seasons. For instance, ancient civilizations, including those as varied as the Roman and the Indian, have had days of fun and foolishness around the start of April.

The April Fool tradition has always been strong in the west. It includes the traditional joke in France and Belgium of hanging fish on the back of an unsuspecting victim. Similarly, the media have a habit of printing false but credible-sounding news items.

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Irwin Almeida

Irwin Almeida is a senior journalist who worked with The Indian Express and was a former editor of the East Indian Journal.