You know I realize that I’m starting to sound like a broken record. I don’t particularly like being that guy who’s always having to raise flags whenever pagans do something dumb, but I guess somebody’s got to do it.
You see, it’s a widespread misconception that no one really knows the origins of April Fools Day. However, as explained by several scholarly studies like Gillian Owens’s “Norwegian Folkmyth and Avril Toulle”, the holiday has a pretty dark past, one that — given pagans virulent ire over days like St. Patrick’s Day — I’m surprised we don’t discuss more.
You see, April Fool’s Day started in the 1600s when the Christians began to take firmer hold of the northern reaches of the Norwegian coastline, where pre-Christian polytheist practices were still widespread. A French missionary, Avril Toulle (corrupted into “April Fool,” you see) was sent to re-convert the masses. Chaucer’s Canterberry Tales relate an English version of the story in which “Avril Doole” took it upon himself to dress up as the Devil and pop out from behind bushes and trees whenever he saw ancient Heathenry being practiced. Having frightened the pagans, he would then go on to berate them for their misconduct and force them to confess on the spot.
Avril’s reputation preceeded him, and as he made north into the colder reaches, folks began to anticipate a visit from the Devil-man, and so when Avril reached a certain town and began to pull his “prank,” the villagers all responded with wailing and displays of devout piety. At first Avril was pleased, thinking that he had finished his work reconverting the countryside; however, he soon found out that the villagers were in a state of distress because, so they told him, Rome had burnt down to the ground. Much to the villagers’ delight, Avril believed their lie (Rome was, of course, just fine) and rushed back to the St. Peter’s where, unfortunately, his devil costume was found and he was hung as a heretic.
And so, as you can see, there *is* a story here, one with elements similar to the St. Patrick story: A man comes to a distant land and begins routing out paganism. But there’s a twist, in that in this story it’s the proverbial “Snakes” that “win” as the villagers play Avril at his own game and successfully prank him.
After Avril’s departure from Norway, it became a tradition there to dress up in costumes and jump out at passersby during April. The practice moved to England where the Day of Avril Fool was set as April 1st and the tradition of lying to friends in order to upset them became a part of the festival, in rememberance of the villagers’ response to Avril. And thus we have the traditions today.
But I’ve got to ask everyone: Is it really right for us to celebrate a day that commemorates the actions of a missionary? Perhaps you’ll say that we’re remembering not the missionary, but the righteous pagans’ ingenious response to the threat of forced conversion — but to that I must ask, is it right to celebrate a jest that ended in a man’s death? I’m not saying that there are easy answers to this, I’m just wondering if it’s not a little hypocritical of all of us to get up in arms about certain commemorative days, but not others — when the litmus test seems to be whether or not we have taken the time to do our research.
You can find more information about the questionable origin of April Fool’s day here.