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Origins of April Fool’s Day


Myself  

By T. V. Antony Raj

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The joker symbolizes the practical jokes associated with April Fools’ Day. (PhotoObjects.net/Jupiterimages)

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One of the most light-hearted days of the year is April Fools’ Day, sometimes called All Fools’ Day, celebrated every year on April 1.

On April Fools’ Day, people indulge in playing harmless practical jokes, for example, telling friends that their shoelaces are untied or sending them on so-called fools’ errands, and also spreading hoaxes. Both the jokes and their victims are labelled “April fools”. So, people indulging in playing April Fool jokes expose their prank by shouting “April Fool!“.

On this day some newspapers, magazines and other published media report fake stories, which are usually explained on the following day or printed below the news section in small letters like those found in some agreements.

Although April Fools’ Day or All Fools’ Day, has been celebrated by different cultures for several centuries no country has yet declared the day as a public holiday.

The exact origins of All Fools’ Day still remain a mystery.

The Hilaria

Some forerunners of April Fools’ Day, the custom of setting aside a day for the playing of harmless pranks upon one’s neighbours, include the Roman festival of Hilaria.

The Hilaria (Latin “the cheerful ones“) were ancient Roman religious festivals celebrated on the March equinox to honour Cybele.

The term ” Hilaria” seems to have originally been a name which was given to any day or season of rejoicing, celebrated in Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises. According to Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 – August 13, 662), a Christian monk, theologian, and scholar, the Hilaria were, either private or public. If private, it is the day in which a person gets married, or a day when a son was born. If public, those days of public rejoicings decided by a new emperor which were devoted to general rejoicings and public sacrifices, and no one was allowed.

Some speculate that April Fools’ Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

The first recorded association between April 1 and foolishness appeared around 1392, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In The Prologue to the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale“, Chaucer tells the story of the vain cock Chauntecler who falls for the tricks of a fox. The narrator describes the tale as occurring:

When that the monthe in which the world bigan
That highte  March, whan God first maked man,
Was complet, and passed were also
Syn March bigan thritty dayes  and two

Unfortunately, the reference “Syn March bigan thritty dayes  and two” is ambiguous and worthless as historical evidence.

Readers apparently misunderstood this line to mean “32 March”, meaning April 1. Modern scholars believe that there is a copying error in the extant manuscripts and that Chaucer actually wrote, Syn March was gon. Thus the passage originally meant 32 days after March, namely, May 2nd, the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, which took place in 1381.

Whatever Chaucer may have meant to convey, we can not conclude, based on these few lines, that he was aware of a custom of playing pranks on April 1st.

Poisson d’vril

Poisson d’avril

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In 1508, in a poem titled “Le livre de la deablerie” written by Eloy d’Amerval, a French choirmaster and composer might have a possible reference to April Fool’s Day. According to Wikipedia, it consists of “a dialogue between Satan and Lucifer, in which their nefarious plotting of future evil deeds is interrupted periodically by the author, who among other accounts of earthly and divine virtue, records useful information on contemporary musical practice.”

Though the poem would only be of interest to historians of music, it includes the line, “maquereau infâme de maintt homme et de mainte  femme, poisson d’vril.

The phrase “poisson d’vril” (April Fish) is the French term for an April Fool, a possible reference to the holiday when people were made fools for having paper fish placed on their backs to symbolize a gullible person or a young, easily caught fish.  However, it is unclear whether d’Amerval’s use of the term referred to April 1st specifically. He might have intended the phrase simply to mean a foolish person.

Eduard de Dene’s comical poem (1561)

In 1561, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene published a comical poem titled “Refereyn vp verzendekens dach / Twelck den eersten April te zyne plach” meaning (roughly) “Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April.” In this poem, a nobleman who hatches a plan to send his servant on absurd errands on April 1st, supposedly to help prepare for a wedding feast. In the closing line of each stanza, the servant says, “I am afraid… that you are trying to make me run a fool’s errand.

This is a fairly clear reference to a custom of playing practical jokes on April 1st. So, we can infer that April Fool’s Day dates back at least to the sixteenth century.

Because of this reference to poet Eduard de Dene and other vague French references, historians believe that April Fool’s Day must have originated in continental northern Europe and then spread to Britain.

The changeover from Julian Calendar to Gregorian Calendar

The Romans used a complicated lunar calendar, based on the phases of the moon. A group of people decided the addition and removal of days to keep this calendar in unison with the astronomical seasons, marked by equinoxes and solstices.

Julius Caesar consulted an Alexandrian astronomer named Sosigenes and in 45 BCE, created a more regulated civil solar calendar, based on the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. In this Julian calendar, a common year had 365 days divided into 12 months with every fourth a leap year with a leap day added to the month of February.

Today, the Gregorian calendar also known as the Western or Christian Calendar is the most widely used calendar in the world. In 1582, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563, some European Catholic countries such as France, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Spain introduced the Gregorian calendar. However, many countries non-Catholic continued to use the Julian Calendar. Turkey was the last country to changeover officially to the Gregorian calendar on January 1, 1927, So, it took almost 300 years for all the countries to switch over to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian Calendar.

In the Middle Ages, most European towns celebrated New Year’s Day on March 25. In some areas of France, New Year’s Day was a week-long holiday ending on April 1. The use of January 1 as New Year’s Day was common in France by the mid-16th century, and this date was adopted officially in 1564 by the Edict of Roussillon.

So, according to some historians, the April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582 when people who were slow to get the news of the changeover to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian Calendar, or failed to understand the new calendar. So, those who celebrated the New Year’s Day on some other dates other January 1, became victims of the butt of jokes and hoaxes of those who celebrated New Year’s Day on January 1.

Escape of Duke of Lorraine and his wife on April 1, 1632

According to a legend, the Duke of Lorraine and his wife were imprisoned at Nantes. On April 1, 1632, disguising themselves as peasants, they escaped from the prison by walking through the front gate.  A person who recognized them told the guards about it. The guards thought the warning was a “Poisson d’vril joke and scoffed at the person who reported it.

John Aubrey (1686)

In 1686, John Aubrey, an English antiquarian, collected notes about popular customs and superstitions, as research for a contemplated work to be titled, Remains of Gentilism and Judaism. His collected notes were published posthumously. He wrote, “Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.”

So by the late seventeenth century, April Fool’s Day had definitely spread to Britain.

Washing the Lions prank (1968)

The tradition of keeping animals at the Tower of London began in the 13th century when Emperor Frederic II sent three leopards to King Henry III. In the following years, elephants, lions, and even a polar bear trained to catch fish in the Thames were added to the collection.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a German visitor wrote, “all variety of creatures in the Tower including three lionesses, one lion of great size called Edward VI from his having been born in that reign; a tyger; a lynx; a wolf excessively old… there is besides a porcupine, and an eagle.”

At that time, a popular traditional prank to be played on April Fool’s Day was sending gullible victims to the Tower of London to see the “washing of the lions” (a non-existent ceremony).

On April 2, 1698, a British newspaper Dawks’s News-Letter reported: “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.”

Examples of this “washing of the lions” prank occurred as late as the mid-nineteenth century. For more about the history of this prank, see the article: Washing the Lions.

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Washing The Lions (Source: Hoaxes.org)

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The above is an image of a card printed by the late Albert Smith and distributed among his friends. It’s hard to say whether any of these cards were sold as he did not authorise the transaction nor whether any person tried to use these cards at the non-existent “White Gate.”

By the eighteenth century, one of the most popular outing for visitors to London was to visit the Tower of London to see the menagerie. However, the population of the animals declined during the early nineteenth century. In 1834, the few remaining animals were transferred to the London Zoo opened to the public in 1828 in an area of Regent’s Park.

In the 18th century, April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain. In 1708, a correspondent wrote to the British Apollo magazine asking, “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?

In Scotland, it turned into a traditional two-day event that began with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phoney errands. Gowk is a word that denotes a  cuckoo bird, a symbol for a fool.

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Tailie Day

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This was followed by Tailie Day, a prank played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them.

Nowadays, newspapers, radio and TV stations, and Web sites have participated in the April 1 tradition creating intricate April Fools’ Day hoaxes by reporting outrageous fictional claims to fool their audiences.

In 1957, BBC reported that Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees. In fact, many viewers fell for this report.

In 1985, Sports Illustrated tricked many of its readers when it ran a cooked-up article about a rookie pitcher named Sidd Finch who could throw a fastball over 168 miles per hour.

In 1996, Taco Bell, the fast-food restaurant chain, duped people by announcing that it had agreed to purchase Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell.

In 1998, Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper,” and many clueless customers requested the fake sandwich.

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I Wish You “A Happy New Year!”


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Myself 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Happy New Year 2014

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The earlier Julian calendar, as well as the modern Gregorian calendar, have January 1 as the first day of the year.

At present, most countries use the Gregorian calendar as their de facto calendar and observe January 1 as the New Year’s Day which is probably the most celebrated public holiday in the world. As the new year starts at the stroke of midnight in each time zone, people invariably greet the New Year’s Day it with fireworks. Globally, New Years’ Day traditions include making new resolutions and meeting the members of one’s family and friends.

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The Roman god Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past (Source: storify.com)
The Roman god Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past (Source: storify.com)

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In pre-Christian Rome, the Julian calendar dedicates the first day of the year to Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions. The Romans venerated Janus as the god of gates, doors, doorways, passages and beginnings, and named the first month of the year in his honour. This implies that the New Year’s Day celebrations follow pagan traditions.

Since 45 BC, the Roman Empire used the Julian calendar and had January 1 as the first day of the year. The Gregorian calendar created in 1582 also called the Western calendar and the Christian calendar was a refined version of the Julian calendar and it too had January 1 as the first day of the year.

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Detail of Circumcision of Jesus Christ by Pellegrino da San Daniele (Photograph: Elio Ciol/Corbis)
Detail of Circumcision of Jesus Christ by Pellegrino da San Daniele (Photograph: Elio Ciol/Corbis)

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In the Gregorian calendar of Christendom, the New Year’s Day liturgically marked the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. The Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church still observe the day as such.

The circumcision of Jesus is an event from the life of Jesus. Verse 2:21 in the Gospel of Luke states:

When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

The Jewish law holds that all males have to undergo circumcision eight days after birth during a Brit milah ceremony, at which they are also given their name. So, according to Jewish tradition, Jesus born on December 25 underwent circumcision on the eighth day of his life on January 1 and named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before Mary conceived him. Hence, liturgically January 1, the New Year’s Day, marked the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus in the Gregorian calendar of Christendom.

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the event on January 1 as the Feast of the Circumcision. Likewise, the Anglican and Lutheran churches celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus on January 1.

Roman Catholics for long celebrated the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 1. Now, the Roman Catholic Church considers New Year’s Day as a Holy Day of Obligation and celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on this day.

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I Wish You “A Happy New Year 2014!”


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Happy New Year 2014

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January 1 is probably the world’s most celebrated public holiday. In each time zone, as the new year starts at the stroke of midnight, it is invariably greeted with fireworks.

Janus, the Roman god of gates, doors, and beginnings.
Janus, the Roman god of gates, doors, and beginnings.

The first month of the year, January, is named after Janus, the Roman god who had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking backward. The Romans dedicated New Year’s Day to Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. This suggests that New Year’s celebrations are founded on pagan traditions.

The Julian calendar used in the Roman Empire since 45 BC, as well as the Gregorian calendar also called the Western calendar and the Christian calendar that refined the Julian calendar in 1582 have January 1 as the first day of the year.

Circumcision of Jesus.
Circumcision of Jesus.

Later on, January 1, the New Year’s Day, was liturgically marked the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus in the Gregorian calendar of Christendom. The Anglican and Lutheran churches celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus on January 1, based on the belief that if Jesus was born on December 25, then according to Jewish tradition, his circumcision would have taken place on the eighth day of his life (January 1).

The Roman Catholic Church considers New Year’s Day as a Holy Day of Obligation and celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on this day.

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The Transition to the Gregorian Calendar


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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Do you know that people who lived in the year 1752 AD lost 11 days of their lives?

Normally, except in a few instances, a reform can bring about happier times in our lives. The Gregorian calendar, also called the Western calendar and the Christian calendar that we use today, is internationally the most widely accepted and used civil calendar. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, by papal bull Inter gravissimas dated February 24, 1582 as a reform to the Julian calendar.

Calendar for September 1752

Look carefully at the image of the above calendar for September 1752. You will notice that 11 days, 3rd to 13th, are missing.

To better understand the calendar change of 1752 that led up to this particular occurrence of missing dates we must know a little about the history of major calendars starting with the Roman calendar.

The Roman calendar

The Roman calendar changed its form several times from the founding of Rome to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The original Roman calendar is believed to have been a lunar calendar, which may have been based on one of the Greek lunar calendars. As there are about 12 lunations (synodic months) in a solar year, this period (354.37 days) is sometimes called a lunar year with an average length of the synodic month of 29.530589 days. This requires the length of a month to be alternately 29 and 30 days (termed respectively hollow and full). At some point of history dates of months ceased to be connected with the lunar phases, but it is not known when it happened.

A common purely lunar calendar is the Islamic calendar or Hijri Qamari calendar. A feature of the Islamic calendar is that a year is always 12 months, so the months are not linked with the seasons and drift each solar year by 11 to 12 days. It comes back to the position it had relative to the solar year approximately every 33 Islamic years. It is used mainly for religious purposes, and in Saudi Arabia it is the official calendar. In other systems, a lunar calendar may include extra months added that synchronize it with the solar calendar.

The Julian calendar

Following the advice of Sosigenes, the Alexandrian astronomer, Julius Caesar established a more regulated civil calendar based entirely on the Earth’s revolutions around the sun. It took effect in 45 BC (709 AUC). It had three common years containing 365 days, and one year (leap year) containing 366 days (every fourth year). This twelve-month calendar, based on a solar (tropical) year, served for many years in perpetual cycle. This calendar is known as the Julian or Old Style (O.S.) and was used throughout the Roman Empire and by various Christian churches. It was the predominant calendar in most of Europe, and in European settlements in the Americas and elsewhere, until it was superseded by the Gregorian calendar.

The Gregorian Calendar

Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Detail of the pope's tomb by Camillo Rusconi.

Early Christians of Jewish origin celebrated Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, as a new facet of the Jewish Passover festival as both are linked with much of their symbolism, In many languages, the words for “Easter” and “Passover” are etymologically related.

The early Roman Catholic Church found the steady drift in the date of Easter undesirable since it was tied to the spring equinox. In 325 AD, the First Council of Nicaea established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) after the March equinox. Therefore, the date of Easter varies between March 22 and April 25. A canon of the council specified that all Christians should celebrate Easter on the same day.

The Gregorian reform contained two parts:

  • a reform of the Julian calendar as used before Pope Gregory XIII’s time, and
  • a reform of the lunar cycle used by the Church, with the Julian calendar, to calculate the date of Easter.

The reform was a modification of a proposal made by Aloysius Lilius, an Italian doctor, astronomer, philosopher and chronologist. His proposal included reducing the number of leap years in four centuries from 100 to 97, by making three out of four centurial years common instead of leap years. This part of the proposal had been suggested before by, among others, Pietro Pitati, an Italian astronomer and mathematician.

The Gregorian reform modified the Julian calendar’s scheme of leap years as follows:

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100; the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years. For example, the year 1900 is not a leap year; the year 2000 is a leap year.

The Gregorian reform also took note of the change in the mean length of the calendar year from 365.25 days (365 days 6 hours) to 365.2425 days (365 days 5 hours 49 minutes 12 seconds), a reduction of 10 minutes 48 seconds per year and dealt with the accumulated difference between these lengths.

Between AD 325 (when the First Council of Nicaea was held, and the vernal equinox occurred approximately March 21st), and the time of Pope Gregory’s bull in 1582, the vernal equinox had moved backward in the calendar, until it was occurring on about March 11th, ten days earlier. Therefore, the Gregorian calendar began by skipping ten calendar days, to restore March 21st as the date of the vernal equinox.

The bull Inter gravissimas issued by Pope Gregory XIII on February 24, 1582 became the law of the Catholic Church in 1582, but it was not recognized by Protestant Churches, Orthodox Churches, and a few others. Consequently, the days on which Easter and related holidays were celebrated by different Christian Churches again diverged. Protestants and Eastern Orthodox countries continued to use the traditional Julian calendar and adopted the Gregorian reform after a time, for the sake of convenience in international trade. It took almost five centuries before almost all Christians achieved that goal. The last European country to adopt the reform was Greece in 1923.

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Was there a Year Zero?


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Year zero - blue

Do you know that year zero does not exist in the Anno Domini system of our present Gregorian calendar and in its predecessor, the Julian calendar?

In 525 AD, Dionysius Exiguus (c.470-c.544), a 6th-century monk born in Scythia Minor, modern Dobruja shared by Romania and Bulgaria, introduced the Anno Domini (AD) era used to number the years of both the Gregorian calendar and the (Christianized) Julian calendar.

According to his friend and fellow-student, Cassiodorus (De divinis Lectionibus, c. xxiii), though by birth a Scythian, Dionysius was in character a true Roman and a thorough Catholic, an accomplished Scripturist, learned in both Greek and Latin.

Dionysius introduced the Anno Domini era to identify the several Easters in his Easter table; however, he did not use it to date any historical event. Before he devised his Easter table, Julian calendar years were identified by naming the consuls who held office that year. In the preface to his Easter table, Dionysius stated that the “present year” was “the consulship of Probus Junior [Flavius Anicius Probus Iunior]” which was also 525 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” No one knows how he arrived at that number, but there is evidence of the system he applied.

Dionysius invented the Anno Domini system of numbering years to replace the Diocletian era, based on the accession of Emperor Diocletian, that was in vogue and used in an old Easter table because he did not wish to continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted Christians.

The Anno Domini era became dominant in Western Europe only after the English monk Venerable Bede used it to date the events in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” which he completed in 731 AD.

Historians have never included a year zero. For example, there are 999 years between January 1, 500 BC and January 1, 500 AD: 500 years BC, and 499 years preceding 500 AD.

In the Gregorian calendar system that we use now, the year 1 AD follows 1 BC without an intervening year zero. So, the year zero does not exist. Thus the year 2013 actually signifies “the 2013th year.” The absence of a year numbered 0 leads to some confusion concerning the boundaries of other decimal intervals, such as decades and centuries. However, in all Buddhist and Hindu calendars as well as in astronomical year numbering there is a “year zero” that coincides with the Julian year 1 BC, and in ISO 8601:2004 where it coincides with the Gregorian year 1 BC.

In fact, the issue of the millennium reflects a Christian-centric view. Outside the Christian world the year 2000 will actually be the year 5760 according to the Jewish calendar, 5119 in the current Maya great cycle, 5100 years elapsed in Kali Yuga according to the Hindus, 2544 according to Buddhism and 1420 according to the Moslem calendar.

So, the question is: “What exactly is the millennium, and are we actually celebrating on the correct date?” For example, the 20th century began on January 1, 1901, likewise the third millennium of the Gregorian calendar began on Monday, January 1, 2001, and not on the widely celebrated Saturday, January 1, 2000.

This anomaly arose because the Gregorian calendar begins with a year 1 instead of 0. Cardinal and ordinal numbering of years is, therefore same:

    • The year 10 is the tenth year of the calendar and the end of the first decade. 
    • The year 11 is the first year of the second decade. 

Despite this rule, years ending in 0, and not 1, are commonly perceived as marking the beginning of a new decade, century, or millennium. Decades, however, are more used as a collective term such as “the 1930s” and not a periodic term such as “1930-1939”.

By the way, could we attribute the absence of year zero to the fact that Indian mathematician and astronomer Brahmagupta’s numeral for zero (0) did not reach Europe until the eleventh century, and Roman numerals had no symbol for zero?

Bindhu:The ancient Indian symbol for Zero - a circle with a dot in the middle, symbolizing the void and the negation of the self.
Bindhu: The ancient Indian symbol for Zero – a circle with a dot in the middle, symbolizing the void and the negation of the self.