April Fool’s Origins

Well, you know that if there’s a holiday of sorts, there will be some attempt by some journalist to tie it to the ancient Romans or Greeks, and of course, April Fool’s Day is no exception. An item at MSNBC, e.g., claims, inter alia:

Some trace April Fools’ Day back to Roman mythology, particularly the story of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter, Proserpina.

Pluto, god of the dead, abducted Proserpina and took her to live with him in the underworld. The girl called out to her mother, but Ceres could only hear the echo of her daughter’s voice and searched for her in vain.

Such “fool’s errands,” or wild goose chases, became a popular practical joke in Europe in later centuries.

Okay … this isn’t even close to anything remotely resembling April Fool’s Day (someone seems to be conflating the start of Spring or something with April Fool’s). An item in the Seattle Examiner is a bit more ‘honest’ (for want of a better word), again, inter alia:

Other theories suggest biblical and mythological origins, most associated with various legendary “fool’s errands.” April Fool’s Day also bears a striking resemblance to many old festivals, including the ancient Roman celebrations of Hilaria (late March) and Saturnalia (late December), both of which involved playacting, costumes, and a great deal of hilarity. Various other festivals from different periods in history have also been proposed as forerunners to April Fool’s Day.

We can focus on Hilaria, which was generally held on March 25th. The details of what went on at Hiliaria come primarily from Herodian:

Every year, on a set day at the beginning of spring, the Romans celebrate a festival in honor of the mother of the gods [Cybele]. All the valuable trappings of each deity, the imperial treasures, and marvelous objects of all kinds, both natural and man-made, are carried in procession before this goddess. Free license for every kind of revelry is granted, and each man assumes the disguise of his choice. No office is so important or so sacrosanct that permission is refused anyone to put on its distinctive uniform and join in the revelry, concealing his true identity; consequently, it is not easy to distinguish the true from the false. [via Livius]

Okay … so there’s dress up involved … can we equate that with what goes on on April Fool’s Day? I might have said no until I got a Facebook notification today that Barack Obama had confirmed me to be his cousin. Hmmm … I think I’ll say maybe on this one …

One thought on “April Fool’s Origins

  1. There’s often a continuity between ancient Roman practices and modern Italian ones… But according to this Italian language podcast – http://bit.ly/8lQYH – Italians celebrate April Fools by PINNING PAPER FISH to the left shoulders of people! Where did that come from and how does it link with April Fool’s Day or ancient Roman festivals?

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