Like Valentine’s Day, April Fools’ Day is globally widespread. Once upon a time, Pakistan used to observe it with pranks — at times not so harmless — but today, more and more people think it is alien to our values because it is based on deception and victimisation.
Before the 16th century, Europe observed its New Year Day on the first of April. The year began with spring amid midsummer’s madness. The word April means ‘opening’ or ‘blooming’.
No one knows how it came about but most think it is the old beginning of the year in the vernal equinox or the beginning of spring. In medieval times, much of Europe celebrated March 25, the Feast of Annunciation, as a precursor to the New Year. The festival ended as March ended and the next day was April 1.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar (the Gregorian Calendar) to replace the old Julian Calendar. The new calendar called for New Year’s Day to be celebrated on January 1. Most people refused to make the shift and continued to celebrate the New Year on April 1 with a bit of fun to demonstrate their indifference.
Spring madness as expressed in Shakespeare’s play Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to be the origin. The Romans had a festival named Hilaria on March 25, rejoicing in the resurrection of Attis. The Hindu calendar has Holi, and the Jewish calendar has Purim. The French call it Poission d’Avril (April fish) because they attach a fish cut-out to unaware people’s backs to make them appear fools.
Iranians play jokes on each other on the thirteenth day of the Persian New Year, Norouz, which falls on April 1 or April 2. This day, celebrated as far back as 536 BC, is called Sizdah Bedar and is the oldest prank-tradition in the world still alive today; this fact has led many to believe that April Fools’ Day has its origins in this tradition.
In the Spanish-speaking world, similar pranks are practiced on December 28, día de los Santos Inocentes, the ‘Day of the Holy Innocents’. This custom also exists in certain areas of Belgium, including the province of Antwerp. The Flemish tradition is for children to lock out their parents or teachers, letting them in only if they promise to bring treats the same evening or the next day.
In Poland, ‘prima aprilis’ (April 1 in Latin) is a day full of jokes. Serious activities are usually avoided. This conviction is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance which Leopold I signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31.
In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is traditionally called Hunt-the-Gowk Day (gowk is Scots for a ‘cuckoo’ or a ‘foolish person’), although this name has fallen into disuse. The traditional prank is to ask someone to deliver a sealed message requesting help of some sort.
Fool is etymologically someone who is full of wind. In Urdu, ‘fooling’ is ‘bewaquf banana’. ‘Bewaquf’ means ‘without standing’. When someone is known to you, it means they have some kind of standing with you: ‘waqif’. In Arabic, ‘waqif’ is used for ‘one who stands’. In English, dumb — who cannot hear — provided another version. Now dummy will serve nicely too.
‘Ullu’ is another word we use in Urdu to express the act of making a fool of somebody: ‘Ullu banana’ (make an owl out of). But this sense attached to a bird is confined to our part of the world although the word’s etymology is shared with English ‘owl’. For some reason, owl is associated with wisdom in the West.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2012.
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