History of April Fool’s Day

By Terry John Calendar

Many of us have fallen victim to an April Fool’s prank, or have played one on someone else. Great fun no doubt, but best enjoyed if you are the prankster and not the unfortunate one left with a red face. And the joke has to take place before midday, or it’s the joker who is the fool!

The origins of April Fool’s Day are mysterious. An ancient rhyme tells us:

The first of April, some do say
Is set apart for All Fool’s Day
But why the people call it so
Not I, nor they themselves do know.

The tradition of April Fool’s Day could have begun in the late 16th century, when Pope Gregory XIII began a series of reforms. One of these was the introduction of a new calendar. The old Julian calendar, which dated back to the Romans, was adrift by about ten days, so  in 1582 the ten day period from 5th to the 14th October were wiped away, so that overnight time jumped from the fifth day of the month to the fourteenth.. Confusing for those who lived at the time, but at least the vernal equinox would now coincide with the Julian computation. This new arrangement became known as the Gregorian calendar and was promulgated throughout Christendom. The only problem was that, whilst the Catholic states of Europe accepted it, the Protestant ones did not, only adopting it much later. Britain only agreed to follow it in 1752.

Under the Julian calendar, New Year had been celebrated between 25th March and 1st April. In France particularly, some people preferred to continue that custom and still held their New Year festivities on 1st April. This led to them being dubbed April Fools by those who followed the Gregorian rule. 

The name April may have its origins in the Latin words aperire or aperio, which mean “to open”. April is the time of the year when plants and crops are growing again and buds start to open.

The bird most associated with April is the cuckoo, when it returns to Britain. It used to be said that it began singing on 14th April, Saint Tiburtius’s Day, and continued to be heard until 24th June, St John’s day. If you hear it on St Tiburtius’ Day, you should turn over all the money in your pockets, then spit, but you should not look at the ground whilst doing so. If you are standing on soft ground at the time, you will have good luck, but hard ground brings the opposite.

Another bird that makes its reappearance in April is the swallow. For that reason, 15th April became known as Swallow Day. Many of our ancestors could not understand where the swallow disappeared to in the winter, and a belief grew up that they spent the cold season hidden in the mud at the bottom of ponds and lakes.

Candle Auctions were held on 6th April. A candle was lit and a pin was stuck into the wax about an inch and a half from the top. People began bidding for pieces of church land which could be let to the poor for a year. The person bidding when the pin fell was the lucky one.

April was a busy month out in the countryside. The dairymaids - and a good dairymaid was worth her weight in gold - would be busy feeding up the breeding cows and, as fodder was in short supply after the long winter she often found herself arguing with the herdsmen, who wanted feed for their draught beasts who were working full time on the land.

The dairymaid also had to see to the new-born calves and piglets, who made their appearance during the spring. The calves particularly needed the first “beast milk” or “beastings” from their mothers. Some of this new, fresh milk would be reserved for family custards, but a jugfull was also sent to neighbours, who would return the empty jug unwashed, as it was considered unlucky to clean it, as that might stop the cow from producing more milk.

It was unusual during the medieval period to see anyone other than a woman milking a cow. As well as caring for the  cows, pigs and their offspring, a dairymaid was expected to milk , make cheeses, butter and creams. A “dairyman” was one who owned a dairy and employed dairymaids. If necessary, the dairymaid would go out into the fields to milk her cows.

She was also responsible for the cleanliness of the wooden pails and tubs. Scrubbing them with a brush only roughened the wood and produced splinters, so wooden vessels were scoured in running water, using trusses of the plant known as horsetail, or its near relative mares tail, both of which grew in damp ground and which produced coarse fibres ideal for cleaning. Similarly, milk was strained through rushes or a hair sieve and was then set in shallow tubs for the cream to rise The tubs were wide and shallow, for cream would not rise through a depth of more than four or five inches. Handling a wide, heavy tub was almost impossible for one person, so stone sinks were used. Once the cream had risen, the dairymaid would skim it off using a flat implement - a scallop shell was ideal, though anything of that shape would do.

From April onwards, the shelves in a medieval pantry began to fill up with cheeses. Many of these were flavoured with local herbs and grasses on which the cows fed. Sometimes the plant known as alkanet was used to colour the cheese red, whilst those cheeses that were to be sent to market were wrapped in dock leaves to keep them cool. Cheese that was to be stored away for a few months might be soaked in brine or vinegar and coated with a crust of various types. The smoking of cheeses in nets over a wood fire also helped to preserve them and added a pungent flavour. 

Each farm and medieval manor produced its own cheeses, the spares being sold in the local markets. The flavours varied much more than do modern cheeses and no doubt each dairymaid thought her own cheeses were best!