The Hazy Origins of April Fools' Day

What's a fish got to do with April Fools' Day?
What's a fish got to do with April Fools' Day?
nito100/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Every year on April 1, when jokesters pull out their best pranks and hoaxes, you may have asked yourself: How did this weird tradition start, anyway? The answer is ... no one really knows. In fact, the origins of April Fools’ Day have long been caught up in myth and legend.

The Many Origins of April Fools' Day

Some have taken the origin back to Noah sending out the dove before the flood was over, or the Roman festival Saturnalia. One popular 19th-century hypothesis traces it to the French term poisson d’avril, literally meaning “fish of April” but figuratively meaning April Fools. The hypothesis went that poisson is a corruption of passion, and was originally in reference to part of the Passion Plays of the Easter season—specifically to commemorate Jesus’s going “backwards and forwards from Annas to Caiaphas, from Caiaphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod, and from Herod back again to Pilate,” in the words of one 1854 book.

Then, in 1983, an intrepid AP reporter interviewed a professor at Boston University about the history of the day. The professor initially said he didn't know anything, but—after the reporter pushed for information—he told a story about the Roman Emperor Constantine and his court jesters.

According to the professor, Constantine was told by his court jesters that they would make better rulers than him, and rather than immediately feeding everyone to the lions, Constantine allowed his jesters to rule for a day. The King of the Fools, someone named Kugel, made a proclamation that “only the absurd would be allowed on that day,” and April Fools' Day was born.

Mystery solved, right? Wrong. Unfortunately for the reporter, it turned out the professor was having a bit of fun. A little over two weeks after the article appeared, the professor admitted he had invented Kugel. “I made up the story because it comported with April Fools’ Day," the professor said, "and I don’t know what all the hullabaloo is about.” 

That was the end of the road for Kugel, and there's little to no evidence for any of the other theories, either. Instead, the most popular theory has to do with calendars.

A Calendar of Fools

There are a few versions of the calendar story, but the most popular takes the story to France in general, and the 16th century in specific. In the 1560s, Charles IX issued an edict which, among many other things, pinned the New Year to the first of January.

According to proponents of the calendar change hypothesis, the old New Year was celebrated on March 25th with a week-long party ending on April 1. Some people weren’t caught up on this date change, and thus had their week-long celebration at the end of March—and because of this became known as April Fools.

There are a few problems with this hypothesis, though. The edict was real, and really did move the date to January 1. But in a piece for the Library of Congress, Stephen Winick points out that the proponents don’t give evidence of that critical week-long party or that this confusion actually happened. Even worse, the old French New Year wasn’t on March 25th.

There wasn’t one universal New Year in France—various regions would celebrate various dates—but the conventional New Year was Easter. According to 19th century historian Sir Francis Palgrave, this is a problem in historical research, as some French years could have two Aprils.

The story works better for the United Kingdom’s (and her colonies’) switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendars in 1752—which also came with a New Year move from March to January—but April Fools was already known by then. In The Spectator from April 1711, the English essayist Joseph Addison wrote, “this little triumph of the understanding, under the disguise of laughter, is no where more visible than in that custom which prevails every where among us on the first day of the present month, when every body takes it in his head to make as many fools as he can,” before launching into a tale of a prank Addison’s neighbor played on Addison’s landlady. He wrote “every one of her children [was sent] upon some sleeveless errand, as she terms it”—such as her daughter being sent to hunt after a monster—“and, in short, the whole family of innocent children made April Fools.”

Today, it’s generally agreed that April Fools has its origins in France. And possibly those “sleeveless errands.”

April Fools' and the Mackerel

Poisson d’avril didn't originally mean an April Fool. Starting in the 15th century, it meant go-between—likely because of the two French meanings of maquereau. According to the Oxford Companion to the Year, both meanings came to French via Dutch: one being makreel, meaning "mackerel" (the fish), and the other being makelaar, meaning "broker." Though other explanations for the double meaning of maquereau exist, according to The Entertaining Magazine, another name for the mackerel was poisson d’avril, because it was “a fish easily caught by deception, singly, as well as in great shoals, at this season of the year.”

As the years went on, poisson d’avril came to mean a person who was the go-between for matchmaking (possibly to distance itself from the more unsavory meaning of maquereaupimp). Then, the theories go, people began playing pranks on these go-betweens, or making them take increasingly ridiculous missions in the name of love. According to The Museum of Hoaxes, the first unambiguous reference to April Fools Day is from a 1561 Flemish story about a nobleman sending a servant on ridiculous errands to prepare for a wedding feast. Even today, many Flemish speakers call April 1 verzenderkesdag, which the Museum of Hoaxes translates as "errand day."

Sadly, as with all such theories, the lessons of 1983 should be kept in mind. The young reporter who told the world about Kugel, King of Fools, was Fred Bayles, and today, he's an Associate Professor in the College of Communications at Boston University—the very institution he reached out to about the origin of April Fools' Day. In 2009, Bayles reflected on the controversy in an interview with BU Today. "Be very, very wary of what someone, particularly someone talking about April Fools' Day, tells you," he advised. And that’s good advice for everyone.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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When a Long Island Housewife Handed Out Arsenic to Kids on Halloween

This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
Douglas DeNatale, Lowell Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

On October 31, 1964, 13-year-old Elsie Drucker and her 15-year-old sister Irene returned to their Long Island home after an evening of trick-or-treating and dumped their spoils onto the table. Among the assortment of bite-sized sweets were two items that looked like bottle caps and bore the warning: “Poison. Keep away from children and animals.”

It wasn’t an ill-conceived, Halloween-themed marketing ploy—the tablets were “ant buttons,” which contained arsenic and could help rid a house of insects and other pests. They could also seriously threaten the life of any small child who accidentally swallowed one.

Alarmed, the girls’ father called the police.

A Criminally Bad Joke

The authorities notified the community, and people immediately began spreading the word and inspecting their own candy bags, unearthing another 19 ant buttons around town. Meanwhile, Elsie and Irene helped the police trace the toxic treats to 43 Salem Ridge Drive, where a 47-year-old housewife named Helen Pfeil lived with her husband and children.

Once other trick-or-treaters confirmed that Pfeil had indeed doled out the poison—and police discovered empty boxes of ant buttons in her kitchen—she was arrested. Fortunately, none of her would-be victims ingested any hazardous material, which meant that Pfeil was only charged with child endangerment. If convicted, however, she could still face prison time.

At her arraignment on November 2, Pfeil tried to explain to a baffled courtroom that she “didn’t mean it maliciously.” After having spent most of Halloween bestowing actual candy on costumed kids, Pfeil had started to feel like some of them should’ve already aged out of the activity.

“Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” she had asked the Druckers, according to the New York Post.

So Pfeil had assembled unsavory packages of ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool, and dropped those into the bags of anyone she deemed “a little old” to be trick-or-treating. She maintained that it was a joke, and her husband, Elmer, reiterated her claim to reporters at the courthouse. While she had been “terribly thoughtless and she may have used awfully bad judgment,” he said, she hadn’t planned to cause harm. Elmer himself wasn’t in on the scheme; at the time, he had been out trick-or-treating with their two sons—who, ironically, were both teenagers.

Her spouse may have been sympathetic, but Judge Victor Orgera was not. “It is hard for me to understand how any woman with sense or reason could give this to a child,” he said, and ordered her to spend 60 days in a psychiatric hospital.

Dumb, Not Dangerous

The following April, Pfeil went on trial in Riverhead, New York, and switched her plea from “Not guilty” to “Guilty” when proceedings were already underway. With about two months until her sentencing date—and the possibility of up to two years in prison looming overhead—Pfeil’s neighbors got busy writing character references to send to the judge.

Though Judge Thomas M. Stark was just as bewildered by Pfeil’s indiscretion as everyone else, the letters convinced him that she was not a danger to society, and he suspended her sentence. “I don’t understand why she had done such a stupid thing as this,” Stark said, “but I feel incarceration is not the answer.”

So Pfeil got off with nothing more than a guilty conscience, and Long Island teenagers continued to pound the pavement for Halloweens to come. But the misguided ruse did scare at least one child into giving it up forever: Little Elsie Drucker never went trick-or-treating again.