We all love the April Fool’s holiday, but how did it come to be?
Different explanations abound. One explanation posits that New Year’s Day used to be March 1st in Rome before the Julian reform, and — given that it was a lunar system — this day fell at different points in the solar year until it was actually occurring closer to what we today would consider April 1st. Caesar fixed this problem by making January 1st the start of both the civic and business year — elected officials took office on the same day as the citizens recorded a new year beginning in their businesses. People who preferred the new year to begin in spring waited until April 1st to have their festivities, or perhaps they just had festivities in both January and April those naughty Romans…
Another explanation takes a similar line of reasoning, but sets the origin much later, at the Gregorian shift of 1582. In between the fall of classical Rome and the Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar — while used throughout Europe — was not standardized in terms of when different countries celebrated the new year. Given the coldness of January and the relative warmth of the time about a week after the vernal equinox, April 1st was a non-Christian New Year’s celebration in many places in Europe. When Pope Gregory XIII ordered the shift, people who refused to stop celebrating on April 1st were ridiculed as unchristian traditionalists. Pro-Church pranksters would send pagan revelers on “fools’ errands”, seeing if they would believe other false things in addition to the false date of the new year.
However, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It was under the Julian calendar before the Gregorian reform, and it was in the Eastern Roman Empire (a.k.a. the Byzantine Empire) where the first April Fool’s Day was alleged to have been celebrated. Constantine — known for moving the empire’s capital to his eponymous city and for converting to Christianity (and pictured on the above coin) — was an extraordinary thinker. He hired the best wits in the empire to be his court jesters, so he could joust with them intellectually, no holds barred. One of Constantine’s favorite fools — possibly named Kugel, or possibly just called that — told the emperor of the world’s then-most powerful empire that a lowly court jester could do a better job running the empire, and that he only needed one day to prove it. The day this claim was made must have been March 31st, but that date could have corresponded to our March 21st, given the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar (it would make sense, given that special feasts with entertainment generally accompanied the equinox and the fool might have been present there).
Constantine, amused, granted Kugel his request and made him emperor for a day the following morning. The fool brought smiles to everyone’s faces as he ordered them to dance around in silly fashions and serve food to their servants instead of the other way around. Constantine so enjoyed the uncharacteristic role reversal, that he celebrated in style with Kugel every year for the next decade. Sadly, Kugel was one of the oldest fools in the court, and when he died, no one had the heart to continue. But the lesson of not taking ourselves too seriously was learned: According to Boston University history professor Joseph Boskin, “In a way, it was a very serious day. In those times fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.”
Added Prof. Boskin, “I’ve still got it.”*
Alex Kravitz, Opinion Editor, reporting from Byzantium
*Boskin fooled the Associated Press and millions of readers with his bogus story in 1983.