All Fools’ Day

By Jan Matejko, Stańczyk

1 April

All Fools’ Day, or Huntigowk Day as it was known in Scotland, takes place on 1 April. Pranks are played to identify the fool—or in Scotland, to “hunt the gowk”—in a light-hearted manner. It is an unofficial renewal festival where for a day actions which otherwise would be forbidden are encouraged to allow the populace to witness the breakdown and restoration of order. As such it is characterised by misrule and disorder and seems to have come about following the banning of the Feast of Fools in the Middle Ages.

A traditional All Fools’ Day prank was to write a letter which stated the reader should pass it on to the fool, then hand it to a friend or neighbour. The letter would be passed on until the church bells chimed midday, at which point whoever was in possession of it would be the fool. Commonly, people would be sent on pointless errands or have tails pinned to their belts or coats. Those fooled before midday on All Fools’ Day were referred to as fools, noodles, gobs, or noddies, whereas anyone who attempted to pull a prank after midday would themselves be the fool, as they did not understand the rules of the game.

Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April.

John Aubrey, Remains of Gentilism and Judaism

All Fools’ Day is linked to the town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, which—as with many places in the midlands—has a strong local legend. Custom dictated that any road the King set foot upon became public property, so when the residents heard that King John (of Nottingham-based Robin Hood fame) was planning on travelling through the town they refused him entry so as to not give up their road. John sent soldiers to subdue this act of local rebellion on the morning of 1 April, but the story goes that the soldiers discovered a town of madness where the population were attempting to drown fish, catch birds in open cages, and generally behave in a way seen as illogical or disturbing. Following these reports, John decided the town was too foolish to be punished. All Fools’ Day can be linked to a commemoration of that story, but equally has been traced to the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and even the Biblical tale of Noah sending a dove from the ark on a fool’s errand before the flooding was over.

The custom of playing a prank on 1 April has remained popular throughout the world, although it is mostly known as April Fools’ Day. In Britain, practical jokes must still be completed by midday, though this still allows many news outlets to publish false joke stories in the morning of 1 April.

Jan Matejko, Stańczyk
Jan Matejko, Stańczyk, Public Domain
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