It does, however, trace its origins to a pope. Pope Gregory XIII that is.
The day began, most believe, in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII decreed the adoption of the “Gregorian calendar” — named after himself — which moved New Year’s Day from the end of March to Jan. 1.
The change was published widely, explains Ginger Smoak, an expert in medieval history at the University of Utah, but those who didn’t get the message and continued to celebrate on April 1 “were ridiculed and, because they were seen as foolish, called April Fools.”
Even though the annual panoply of pranks meant to mock the gullible or to send a friend on a “fool’s errand” may not be grounded in any ancient religious merrymaking, the notion of “holy fools” does have a long and respected place in Judeo-Christian history.
Hebrew prophets were often scorned as mad or eccentric for pronouncing unwelcome or uncomfortable truths. The Apostle Paul talked to the Corinthians about becoming “fools for Christ.” And Eastern Orthodoxy still sees the “holy fool” as a type of Christian martyr.
Such views are wrapped up in paradox.
“If the wisdom of the world is folly to God, and God’s own foolishness is the only true wisdom,” argues British clergyman John Saward in “Perfect Fools: Folly for Christ’s Sake in Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality,” “it follows that the worldly wise, to become truly wise, must become foolish and renounce their worldly wisdom.”
Such role reversals were common during medieval Christian festivals.
Some argue that April Fools’ Day is a remnant of early “renewal festivals,” which typically marked the end of winter and the start of spring.
These festivals, according to the Museum of Hoaxes, typically involved “ritualized forms of mayhem and misrule.”
Participants donned disguises, played tricks on friends as well as strangers, and inverted the social order.
“Servants might get to order around masters, or children challenge the authority of parents and teachers,” the museum’s website notes. “However, the disorder is always bounded within a strict time frame, and tensions are defused with laughter and comedy. The social order is symbolically challenged, but then restored, reaffirming the stability of the society, just as the cold months of winter temporarily challenge biological life, and yet the cycle of life continues, returning with the spring.”
Some have mistaken these celebrations for medieval Christianity’s Feast of Fools, which took place each January.
For centuries, this feast was seen as “a disorderly, even transgressive Christian festival, in which reveling clergy elected a burlesque Lord of Misrule, who presided over the divine office wearing animal masks or women’s clothes, sang obscene songs, swung censers that gave off foul-smelling smoke, played dice at the altar, and otherwise parodied the liturgy of the church,” says historian Max Harris, author of “Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools.” Afterward, revelers would “take to the streets, howling, issuing mock indulgences, hurling manure at bystanders, and staging scurrilous plays.”