The unsuspecting City man who, on the point of commencing his day's work at 10 a.m. on any April 1st, receives a 'phone message from a friend desiring an immediate interview on important business, gets out at once for the place of meeting, only to find that the friend knows nothing about it, and has actually had no occasion to use the 'phone at all up to that moment. Then the City man remembers the date, and realises that he has been fooled. It is still early, just 10:30 a.m., and he begins to take his revenge on other friends, until things may be said to "hum." But whilst the fun is fast and furious, very few of these practical jokers can say how the custom of fooling on this day arose; and if one turns to his handy Encyclopaedia for information, he will read that "it is of unknown antiquity."
As might be expected, some writers attempt to trace the origin to a Nature feast--that of the Vernal Equinox--and through Nature to a starting point in Christian history. Maurice, in his Indian Antiquities (vol VI., p. 71) speaks of the first of April as the ancient feast of the Vernal Equinox, equally observed in India and Britain. He goes on to say that the date was held as a high and general festival, "in which an unbounded hilarity reigned through every order of its inhabitants; for the sun at that period of the year, entering into the sign Aries, the New Year, and with it the season of rural sports and vernal delight, was then supposed to have commenced. The proof of the great antiquity of the observance of this annual festival, as well as the probability of its original establishment in an Asiatic region, arises from the evidence of facts afforded us by astronomy. Although the reformation of the year by the Julian and Gregorian Calendars, and the adaptation of the period of its commencement to a different and far nobler system of theology, have occasioned the festival sports, anciently celebrated in this country on the first of April, to have long since ceased; and although the changes occasioned, during a long lapse of years, by the shifting of the Equinoctional points, have in Asia itself been productive of important astronomical alterations, as to exact aera of the commencement of the year; yet, on both Continents, some very remarkable traits of the jocundity which then reigned, remain even to these distant times. Of those preserved in Britain, none of the least remarkable or ludicrous is that relic of its pristine pleasantry, the general practice of making April-Fools, as it is called, on the first day of that month; but this, Colonel Pearce (Asiastic Researches, vol. 11., p. 334) proves to have been an immemorial custom among the Hindoos, at a celebrated festival holden about the same period in India, which is called the Huli Festival. 'During the Huli, when mirth and festivity reign among the Hindoos of every class, one subject of diversion is to send people on errands and expeditions that are to end in disappointment, and raise a laugh at the expense of the person sent. The Huli is always in March, and the last day is the general holiday. I have never yet heard any account of the origin of this English custom; but it is unquestionably very ancient, and is still kept up even in great towns, though less in them than in the country. With us, it is chiefly confined to the lower class of people; but in India high and low join in it; and the late Suraja Doulah, I am told, was very fond of making Huli Fools, though he was a Mussulman of the highest rank. They carry the joke here so far as to send letters making appointments, in the names of persons who it is known must be absent from their houses at the time fixed upon; and the laugh is always in proportion to the trouble given.' The least inquiry into the ancient customs of Persia, or the minutest acquaintance with the general astronomical mythology of Asia, would have told Colonel Pearce that the boundless hilarity and jocund sports prevalent on the first day of April in England, and during the Huli Festival of India, have their origin in the ancient practice of celebrating with festival rites the period of the Vernal Equinox, or the day when the new year of Persia anciently began."
Thus it would appear that All Fools' Day is not a British or even a continental monopoly, for the French "Poisson d'Avril" owes its existence to the same cause as our own. But why "All" Fools' Day? "All" is said by some authorities to be a corruption of "auld," i.e. old, mention being found in the Romish calendar of a "Feast of Old Fools." (Auldborough, in Yorkshire, now Aldborough, is always pronounced Allborough.) But this feast was held on January 1st, and although removals of feasts were not unknown in the crowded state of the Roman calendar, the theory that the ancient Druids were the old fools, whom the new Christians taunted and set apart for a day of "mafficking," is hardly tenable. The Christian interpretation is given by Bellingen in his Etymology of French Proverbs. The word "poisson" in the phrase "poisson d'Avril" is his starting point.
"Poisson," he contends, is corrupted through the ignorance of the people from "Passion"--and length of time has almost totally defaced the original intention, which was as follows: that as the Passion of our Saviour took place about this time of the year, and as the Jews sent Christ backwards and forwards to mock and torment him, i.e. from Annas to Caiaphas, from Caiaphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod, and from Herod back again to Pilate, this ridiculous or rather impious custom took its rise from thence, by which we send about from one place to another such persons as we think proper objects of our ridicule.
This is rather too ingenious to be convincing. The most natural suggestion was made by Dr. Pegge, Rector of Whittington, in The Gentleman's Magazine for April, 1766. After discussing the theories previously outlined, he says:--"Now, thirdly, to account for it; the name undoubtedly arose from the custom, and this, I think, arose from hence: our year formerly began, as to some purposes and in some respects, on the 25th of March, which was supposed to be the Incarnation of our Lord; and it is certain that the commencement of the new year, at whatever time that was supposed to be, was always esteemed an high festival, and that both amongst the antient Romans and with us. Now great festivals were usually attended with an Octave (see Gentleman's Magazine, 1762, p. 568), that is, they were wont to continue eight days, whereof the first and last were the principal; and you will find the 1st of April is the octave of the 25th of March, and the close or ending, consequently, of that feast, which was both the Festival of the Annunciation and of the New Year. From hence, as I take it, it became a day of extraordinary mirth and festivity, especially amongst the lower sorts, who are apt to pervert and make a bad use of institutions which at first might be very laudable in themselves."