Law Office of Paul Black - April 2020


April 2020

Tracing the Origins of April Fools’ Day A FOOL’S ERRAND

By the time this newsletter reaches you, I hope you haven’t fallen victim to any April Fools’ pranks. The internet has certainly taken this strange tradition to new heights, with some of the world’s largest companies getting in on the deception. And while I may not have a history of pulling pranks myself (that I’ll admit to), I have to say there’s something fascinating about this holiday. So, just as we delved into the possible origins of spring-cleaning last edition, I decided to explore the roots of April Fools’. many pranks themselves. In fact, the one thing historians seem to be in agreement on when it comes to April Fools’ is that there’s very little to agree on. One of the more popular theories about the first of April becoming a day for deception stems from a mistranslation of a very famous piece of literature. In “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer describes a wily fox pulling a prank on a date which, translated from Old English, roughly says “32 days since March began,” i.e., April 1. However, As it turns out, tracing this holiday through history can be as fraught as

the very same story (“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”) references the sun being in the sign of Taurus — something that would be impossible for early April. So, unless Chaucer really needed to brush up on his astrology, the original text must have been mistranslated during the many times it was transcribed since 1392. Many researchers believe that the original manuscript said “32 days since March had gone,” which would put the fox’s prank on May 2. If these tales were in fact a spark for April Fools’, we may have missed the mark entirely! But other historians argue the origins of this celebration go far further back than Chaucer and the 14th century. Indeed, the ancient Romans celebrated Hilaria the day after the March equinox. Meant to ring in the beginning of brighter days, a chief aspect of Hilaria was masquerading in costumes, where one could parody even the most prominent Roman leaders without fear of retribution. Similarly, pagan traditions from northern Europe saw the vernal equinox as a time when Mother Nature played tricks on people with her ever-changing weather.

What we know for certain is that 16th-century France is the most likely progenitor of the term “April fool,” and it has very little to do with ancient Roman holidays or equinoxes. In fact, the label was coined by those breaking with Roman tradition, switching to the Gregorian calendar which placed the New Year on Jan. 1. Those who still clung to the old traditions of celebrating on April 1 were deemed “poisson d’avril” — April fish. While the name may sound strange, calling someone a fish at that time in French culture was essentially slang for foolish and easy to deceive. Whether or not any of these events are related, one thing is clear: Many people throughout the centuries have felt the need to liven things up as spring begins. After the solitude of winter, wanting to cut loose is more than understandable. In fact, some might say it’s natural that we don’t have one defining reason for celebrating April Fools’ day — you don’t need a reason to have a laugh.

-Paul Black

Do you have estate planning or elder law-related questions? Write to me at with “Asked and Answered” in the subject line. Your identity will be kept confidential. The opinions offered in this column are not intended to replace or substitute any financial, medical, legal, or other professional advice. | 1

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