April Fools Day celebrates all things silly, but if you find yourself on the receiving end of someone’s practical joke, don’t be discouraged – you’re not alone. A spirit of mirth and fun are essential to this day, which is a custom imported from Europe rather than a true holiday.
April Fools jokes are generally benevolent and take a variety of forms, from gentle pranks – such as making a crank telemarketing phone call to a friend or displacing a colleague’s stapler – to telling harmless fibs or fabricating completely outlandish stories. The intent is to try and get the object of the “trick” to believe what they are being told, if only for a moment. The trickster can then expose the deceit and declare the person an “April Fool!” (Nicely, of course.)
Some people give silly or absurd gifts, and on occasion someone will enact a prank that pushes the limits of the socially acceptable. So don’t be fooled on April Fools Day. If things seem a little strange, they probably ARE.
What could be more absurd than a fish in April? If you’re French, you might understand. In sixteenth-century France, fishing in April was not only disallowed (as the fish were newly hatched), but March was the month of the sign Pisces, so you couldn’t be a fish in April! (Get it?)
The custom of playing jokes on people on April 1 came out of the old European communications system; in 1564, King Charles IX of France decided to bring his country up to speed on the Gregorian Calendar, and declared the New Year to be January 1 – previous celebrations had run from March 25 to April 1.
News did not spread quickly in those days, and some of the country folks didn’t catch on to the new schedule for a while. As a result, they became the butt of jokes and pranks initiated by those “in the know.” Those who refused to acknowledge the new date, or simply forgot it, received foolish gifts and invitations to nonexistent parties. The butt of such a prank was known as a “poisson d’Avril” (April fish).