The custom of playing pranks on the first of April is observed in not only in British colonies but also in Northern America, France, Germany (where it’s called Narrentag), Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Russia (where it’s called Dyen Doeraka which means Dunce’s Day), and even in Japan. In Scotland it’s known as Gowk or Cuckoo Day.
The precise historical origin of April Fools’ Day is unknown. The earliest mention of an April Fools’ joke was found in a French source from 1508, and there exists a Dutch parody on the custom from 1539. But these sources indicate that the custom was already well and universally established.
In France today, April 1st is called Poisson d’Avril. French children fool their friends by taping a paper fish to their backs. When the victim discovers the trick, the prankster yells Poisson d’Avril! – April Fish!
The traditional symbol of April Fool’s Day is the jester, or fool, who held a special place in medieval history. They were considered insiders of the court, chosen for their sense of humour to provide entertainment for the king.
Jesters typically wore bright, eccentric clothing and distinctive cloth hats with bells on the end of each of its three points. The points were a representation of a donkey’s ears and tail. The jester also carried a sceptre which was a symbolic ornamental staff to represent authority.
Because jesters were given leeway to say anything “in jest”, they were sometimes the only members of the court able to voice an honest opinion about local situations. While others fawned over the king, the jester was encouraged to speak the truth. Because of his lower social status he didn’t pose a threat to the king’s power. And because he was not part of the political intrigue of the court – he was after all considered a fool – the king often felt it safe to confide in his jester. Because of this the jester had an important and influential role in medieval history.
The unique nature of jesters also contributed to their popularity among the general public. Some became the subjects of stories and jokes, and some became famous in their own right. King Henry VIII employed a jester by the name of Will Sommers, who gained such fame that he was the subject of literature and drama almost two centuries after his death. King Charles I employed a jester named Jeffrey Hudson who gained the nickname “The Royal Dwarf” because of his height. One of his infamous pranks, made possible by his stature, was to hide himself inside of a giant pie and then leap out, startling the people to whom the pie was presented.
The ancient traditions of the jester continue in modern times with the magician, the clown and the comedian.
Anyone for pie?
– Originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Inside Entertainment magazine, the monthly membership magazine of the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand Inc.