April Fool's Day

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The first mention of this custom is a curt note in Aubrey: ‘Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.’ (Aubrey, 1686, 1880: 10). It must have reached England from Germany or France in the mid-17th century, and quickly became very popular under the name All Fools' Day; 18th-century writers call it ‘universal’. At this period it was an adult amusement; people tried to trick one another into going on ridiculous errands, seeking nonexistent objects such as pigeon's milk or a biography of Eve's mother, and so on.

Individual hoaxing of this kind grew rare among adults in the 19th century, but in recent decades impersonal media hoaxes have become popular; every year, press and television produce a crop of plausible, poker-faced absurdities ingeniously disguised as news items. On 1 April 1970 BBC radio broadcast a tribute to a non-existent scholar and philanthropist, in which various celebrities took part. The Times, abandoning its rule that hoaxes should be ignored, did report this one; readers were amused, not angry. The idea was increasingly imitated, for example by the Guardian's 1977 account of the delightful but imaginary island of Sans Serif.

Children's tricks can be directed either against adults or against one another. Some are novel, as when some Bradford sixth-formers in 1970 advertised their school as being for sale, but most are traditional in form; they give false warnings and disconcerting news, and mock those who believe them, play simple practical jokes, send people on futile errands (Opie and Opie, 1959: 243–7). As with other children's customs, there is a time limit; anyone attempting a trick after midday is taunted:April Fool is gone and past,You're the biggest fool at last.

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