Photo by Will Montague. CC, click on image for license and information.

Where is here exactly? Here is a tired, eye-roll inducing pseudo-holiday that we endure with a grimace every year. Hopefully you have room for one more article about April Fools' Day. Maybe you spent the day avoiding the Internet as much as possible—clicking around as carefully as you could and refraining from commenting where possible just in case the news you saw (and maybe partially believed) wasn't exactly true. Perhaps you're a bit more tolerant now that the day is safely behind us because on April 1st, more than any other day in the year, we feel the uncertainty of interacting online: the distance afforded by the web and the connectivity it offers cannot be trusted blindly. (Which is not to say we can trust all content on the web on other days of the year, but that we are less likely to question sources or truthfulness.)

In North America, Europe, Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia, April 1st is an unofficial holiday celebrated with pranks and lies. In north England and Scotland, there was a tradition of sending a person on a meaningless errand, and the prank was successful if one could get the unsuspecting individual to complete three meaningless tasks (such as delivering an empty letter or message). While in France and Italy, in a tradition that dates back to Roman times, an unsuspecting person is marked by a sign of a fish as a "fish out of water."

The origin of the April Fools' traditions isn't known but it seems to be tied overall to a sense of calendrical change. Historically, under the Julian calendar the New Year did not begin until March 25th. In France, the old year and New Year celebrations lasted about a week, culminating with celebratory pranking and gift giving on April 1st. However, in 1564 Charles IX adopted the Gregorian calendar and moved the New Year to January 1st. This change was not immediately adopted: word of the change took time to travel and people were slow to give up their traditions. As the change gained acceptance, however, the people who clung to the Julian traditions were teased with April 1st visits that emulated the original observances but with the giving of nonsensical gifts. The change took time to spread elsewhere as well. In Scotland, March 25th was observed as the New Year until 1600. In England and the British colonies, the New year observance of January 1st was only accepted in 1752. It's possible that the American April Fools' Day traditions stem from this these histories, following the adoption from France to Scotland to England, but organized festivals celebrating silliness and folly are found throughout the world (and predate these practices) so this inheritance may not be quite that straightforward.

There is also a psychological aspect to April Fools' Day tied to seasonal changes. The other time of year when pranks and tricks are accepted, if not expected, is Halloween, which is another transition point in the year. Interestingly, the tone of each holiday drives the character of the pranks associated with it. For example, April in the Northern hemisphere is a period of awakening. As we leave behind the long days of winter, we experience a psychological lightening that is reflected in the types of trickery that mark April 1st. The pranks are gentler; they tease but do not frighten. They rely more on words and gestures than a physical transformation. And they're reflective of the weather to a certain degree, which is uncertain but hints of steady warmth to come. The alternatives—fear and taunting, and the wearing of masks or costumes to transform the self—are prevalent in Halloween festivities and reflect the anxiety we may be feeling as we descend into seasonal darkness. This emotional response to change provides a stronger case for the origins of the holiday when considered with similar types of celebrations found elsewhere. For example, the Hindu Festival of Holi where people throw colored powder on each other to mark the coming of Spring is a celebration designed to include everyone and subject them to the same experiences of absurdity. On the final day of the festival, unsuspecting people are also sent on meaningless errands, if possible. The celebrations have a sense of jovial trickery that is taken in good spirit.

There are a few requirements that pranks must adhere to in order to be accepted. The idea that everyone and anyone can be subject to a joke is primary. April Fool is not an exclusive title. But the prank must also bring people into an unreal world without causing needless harm. And the deception must be revealed, which allows the fool a chance to repay the favor. Pranks that adhere to these rules endure and tend to be repeated with subtle variations to match the changing times. An example is found in the ways the old variation of "made-you-look" has changed in relation to men's shoe fashions. When buckles were common, you might have said to someone "Sir, your shoe is unbuckled." When the fashion changed and laces became common, this was changed to "Your shoe is untied." The objective in both instances was to make the person look down in the belief that something was wrong when nothing was amiss and become an April Fool. The prank overall adhered to the rules put forth: it transported the individual to a fantasy world (where their shoes were undone), they were not injured, and the prank was revealed. Additionally, for pranks to be accepted, they should be conducted as early as possible in the day to avoid fatigue and awareness. Once the time for pranks has passed—let's say around midday—the prankster himself runs the risk of being the fool.

Of course, there seems to be some status tied to the number of people who can be fooled, with an added bonus if they can be fooled at once. While April Fools' Day has tended to focus on the individual, with the rise of mass communication media, groups have been targeted for pranks. In 1860, several hundred London dignitaries received an invitation to the watch the April 1st Annual Ceremony of Washing the White Lions at the Tower of London via admission through the White Gate. There was no White Gate (or white lions) so attendees soon found themselves with no where to go. This group prank breaks one of the requirements for April Fools' Day pranks in that it doesn't allow for payback. And that may be one of the issues we have with online April Fools' Day jokes: They lack the personal touch that assures the individual that no real harm was meant because they don't immediately connect the prankster with the fool. They are not individualized. The reveal doesn't assure the fool that no harm was intended because it's distributed en masse and can be easily ignored or denied. The joke is one-sided.

The best of the web—group communication and the mass sharing of information—brings us the the worst of April Fools' Day in a depersonalized experience that leaves us with lingering distrust. But perhaps this too serves as an important reminder: while we might quickly forget and resume our normal online activities, perhaps the renewal of this distrust is an important part of our relationship with online media, and is therefore ideally representative of the rules in this context. The question of harm does linger, but perhaps that too is indicative of our relationship with online media and transactions we conduct online, which leave us open to various digital dangers.

How did you spend April Fools' Day?

--

References:

Alford, Finnegan and Richard Alford (1981). "A Holo-Cultural Study of Humor," Ethos 9(2): 149-164.

McEntire, Nancy Cassell (2002). "Purposeful Deceptions of the April Fool," Western Folklore 61(2): 133-151.

--

You might also like:

Fooling Ourselves: The Everyday Role of Ritual

The Missing Link that Wasn't

Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter

Ashes, Yarmulkes and the Hijab: Communitas and religious Symbols