Academic journal article Western Folklore

Purposeful Deceptions of the April Fool

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Purposeful Deceptions of the April Fool

Article excerpt

The first of April, some do say,

Is set apart for all Fools' Day.

But why the people call it so,

Nor I, nor they themselves do know.

But on this day are people sent

On purpose for pure merriment.

Poor Robin's Almanac (1760)

As I sift through childhood memories of holidays and family traditions, the first day of April comes to mind. I can see my mother, a reserved and proper New Englander, watching my father dip into the sugar bowl and put a spoonful of salt into his coffee at breakfast. "April fool!" she says, as he tastes the bitter surprise. My brother and I cannot contain our mirth as we watch him fumble towards the sink, desperate for a quick gulp of water. "Priscilla!" he says, shaking his head as he refills the glass. "You did it again." On any other day, for my mother to substitute salt for sugar and wait for her husband to begin his day as a fool would be absurd. Quiet and patient, she was not known as a prankster. But on that one day and that day alone, this unexpected change in her behavior was oddly acceptable.

In North America, Europe, Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia, the first day in April is an unofficial holiday that is marked by pranks and lies. It is a time when untruths are expected. April Fools' Day is also known as all Fools' Day and April Noddy. Addison and Steele's Spectator describes April 1st as "the merriest day in the year in England" (1760: 1:47), presumably referring to the merriment of conducting April Fools' pranks. In the north of England and in Scotland, April 1st is called Huntigowk Day and it is the day of the fool's errand. A person is sent off to deliver a letter. When the recipient reads the letter, he or she tells the naive deliverer to take it to someone else who lives-always-farther down the road. The letter actually reads, "It's the first of April! Hunt the gowk another mile." Eventually the gowk,1 which means a cuckoo or simpleton, is sent back to where the delivery began, a place where friends have gathered to shout "April gowk! April gowk!" (Santino 1995:100; Dundes 1989:99). An April gowk text collected in northeastern Scotland by Peter and Iona Opie cautions each person who reads the letter to keep a straight face and thus guard the joke: "Don't you laugh, and don't you smile; Hunt the gowk another mile" (Opie and Opie 1959:245; Bundes 1989:99).2 Icelanders make reference to cases of hlaupa april ("running April"), seemingly derived from the Danish lobe april, or fool's errand. The April Fools' Day hoax is only valid if the victim "could be tricked into taking three steps" (or, alternatively, crossing three thresholds) before realizing the hoax (Bjornsson 1995:110).

In France and Italy the term April Fish (poisson d'Avril; pesce d'Aprile) refers to a wide range of ritual pranks.3 The fish, or fool, is often marked by the sign of a fish (Dundes 1989:102). Confectioners' windows display chocolate fish on April 1st, and friends anonymously send each other humorous postcards imprinted with pictures of fish (Spicer 1958:34-35). According to Jack Santino, "Poisson d'Avril is still the current term in France, and there the fish is to April Fools' Day what the shamrock is to Saint Patrick's Day-the primary symbol of the holiday" (1995:97). French school children delight in the chance to fool their classmates and teachers on the first of April, taping cutouts of fish on the backs of their clothing. On this day alone the April "fish," or "sucker" is indeed caught by a patient and ensnaring prankster, and put into an awkward situation, like "a fish out of water."4 Alan Dundes notes that the fish prank is also practiced in Holland, where a paper herring is affixed to the back of the fool's clothing (1989:102). Further north, Swedish pranksters recite the following verse on Forsta April:

April, April, you silly fish,

I can fool you as I wish.(Liman 1985:71)

Biblical connections to April Fools' Day seem unconvincing (Dundes 1989:101). …

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