It is a matter of some difficulty to account for the expression, ” An April fool,” and the strange custom so universally prevalent through-out this kingdom, of people’s making fools of one another on the 1st April, by trying to impose on each other, and sending one another, upon that day, upon frivolous, ridiculous, and absurd errands. How-ever, something I have to offer on the subject, and I shall here throw it out, if it were only to induce others to give us their sentiments.
The custom, no doubt, had an original, and one of a very general nature ; and therefore one may reasonably hope that though one person may not be so happy as to investigate the meaning and occasion of it, yet another possibly may. But I am the more ready to attempt a solution of this difficulty, because I find Mr. Bourne, in his ” Antiquitates Vulgares,” has totally omitted it, though it fell so plainly within the compass of his design.
I observe first, Mr. Urban, that this custom and expression has no connection at all with the Festum Hypodiaconorum, Festum Stultorum, Festum Fatuorum, Festum Innocentium, etc., mentioned in Du Fresne, for these jocular festivals were kept at a very different time of the year.
Secondly, That I have found no traces, either of the name or of the custom in other countries, insomuch that it appears to me to be an indigenal custom of our own. I speak only as to myself in this, for others, perhaps, may have discovered it in other parts, though I have not.
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 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, sir, great festivals were usually attended with an Octave [see ante, p. 7], that is, they were wont to continue eight days, whereof the first and the last were the principal; and you will find that the first 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 commencement of the new year. From hence, as I take it, it became a day of extraordinary mirth and festivity, especially amongst the lower sort, who are apt to pervert and to make a bad use of institutions, which at first might be very laudable in themselves.