Sunday, 3 April 2011

Aril Fool's Day (Lessons from History 8)

Every year, on the first of April, news media, public places, the internet and pretty much everyone else decides to play pranks on one another. Fake news stories are circulated; people announce films, books and TV series that will never happen; people try to get away with the most outrageous lies they can think of. Generally fun times. The whole thing seems a little bit random and really rather strange. I mean, why have a whole morning, and why just a morning, dedicated to pulling pranks on one another? As usual, such rituals have some kind of historical context from which they are now far removed, so I decided to do a little digging into the origins of this world-wide day of pranking, being a budding historian with far too much time on my hands, and all.

As you might expect, this event is predominantly Greco-Roman in origin, as with everything else. In fact it’s probably a left over from the Hilaria Festival, which was the celebration of the vernal equinox. These were generally days of celebration and happiness, with a fair amount of alcohol and food consumed. There seems to be no mention of the pranking element of the whole thing until much later.

As the Roman Empire came into contact with Celtic and Scandinavian tribes, cross pollination from the Norse tradition brought the influences of some of the Norse gods and rituals into the Roman world. One god in particular made his presence known. The closest the Greco-Roman tradition has to a Loki figure is Dionysus, but he is hardly the happy-go-lucky prankster that Loki is. Given the link to Dionysus, along with a Norse Tradition that Loki had more power at the time of the Equinoxes, Loki slipped most comfortably into the Hilaria festival. During the late Empire, a tradition of honouring this Norse God by pranking friends and family, causing mischief and generally having a bit of a laugh developed.

Of course, as the Catholic Church became established, the Hilaria festival became absorbed into the cannon, taking on the trappings of the Lent tradition. Loki also managed to slip in the back door and the pranking continued. It did loose some of the context, however, given that Lent became much less about celebrating and much more about sacrifice. The tradition of pranking people in late March, early April faltered and died in much of Europe.

However the Viking invasion of England reintroduced Loki and his pranksters, and the tradition continued to be strong in England, even as it faltered in the rest of Europe. Indeed as Saxon England flourished, as did the custom of having a jester perform at parties and special occasions. Inevitably they latched onto this tradition and fixed the first of April as the day in which they would really go to town. Chroniclers tell of some really rather spectacular and dangerous pranks and stunts, some of which so enraged the jester’s master that he had the jester executed for treason.

Despite the odd mishap, the tradition flourished and, with the Norman Invasion, spread back to Europe. Through the early Middle Ages the tradition became so popular and out of hand that the Church actually tried to ban the practice of mass pranks in early April in 1257. A petition from a number of prominent court jesters, backed by some influential Lords who quite enjoyed the practice, forced the Papal hand in revoking his decree. However Pope Alexander IV did succeed in containing the practice to the morning of the first of April, rather than the several days over which the practice had spread over the previous several hundred years.

For many years, April Fool’s Day progressed much as it does now, largely lead by the ever popular court jester. Of course it still got out of hand occasionally and jesters were executed for their indiscretions. The only break in this long tradition came in England’s short adventure into Puritanism, after the English Civil war, when Lord Cromwell banned the practice, along with almost everything else that was fun. Fortunately William of Orange saw to the reinstating of April Fool’s Day, along with everything else. Given that Cromwell’s declaration actually happened on the 1st of April 1654, some conspiracy theorists have stipulated that the entire Commonwealth and Cromwell’s Lord Protectorship was one big April Fool’s Day prank, however it is more likely just an uncharacteristic attack of irony from Mr Cromwell.

Given the Puritanism under which the USA was established, it should come as no surprise that April Fool’s Day come late to those shores, however Thomas Jefferson argued passionately that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ not only justified, but openly encouraged the tradition of April Fool’s Day, so the practice was adopted and soon flourished in the New World.

Ever since Loki first danced his way into the Roman tradition, then over into England on a Viking longship, April Fool’s Day had been a long and established tradition in England. Popes and Puritans have tried to ban it, but it still remains, strong and cheeky as ever. So keep pranking, people. Every first of April, remember those brave jesters who fought oppression and death in order to preserve your right to lie between your teeth about stuff in the hope that some gullible idiot will believe you.

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