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Chaucer, Kugel and April Fool’s Day

April Fool’s Day is no joke. Did you know April Fool’s Day pranks and celebrations can be traced as far back as 536 BC? Apparently the first known celebrations began with Sizdah-Bedar, a holiday still celebrated today in Iran, which has its roots in the Zoroastrian New Year. Sizdah-Bedar (literally ‘getting rid of 13’) is the 13th day of the Iranian New Year (right around the beginning of April) and is celebrated as a day for joy and laughter which are the strongest weapons against evil.

In the English speaking world, the tradition is typically traced back to Chaucer. A popular tale in his Canterbury Tales, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, involves a cocky rooster named Chauntecleer who is tricked by a crafty fox on the 1st of April:

Now when the month in which the world began
(The month of March, when God created man)
Was over and indeed had been exceeded
(The days were thirty-two that were completed)

The phrasing is a little awkward, and the date mentioned may actually be May 2 (32 days after March ended rather than 32 days after March began), but either way, April 1st became a popular day for pranking and tricks. In France, the tradition grew to be called Poisson d’Avril or the ‘April Fish’ because they would slap a fish shaped tag on the backs of fools like a mediæval ‘kick me’ sign.

In 1983, a Boston University professor issued a kind of meta April Fools’ Day prank of his own, making a fool of much of the country. Prof Joseph Boskin was approached by the Associated Press to shed some light on the origins of April Fool’s Day. He said he had no idea. But when they pushed him further, Prof Boskin started to spin a yarn about April Fool’s Day beginning during the time of Emperor Constantine when the emperor began the tradition of allowing a jester to be king for one day of the year. This jester was referred to as the King Kugel. And the Associated Press ran this story.

If you’re not quite getting the absurdity here, kugel is a Jewish noddle casserole popular in New York. Apparently you had to be either Jewish or from New York to get the joke (which is true of many jokes actually). It didn’t take long for media outlets across the country to start looking to Prof Boskin to expound on this new information, and the jig was finally up when one of his students let the cat out of the bag.

Clearly, pranking on the 1st of April is a human tradition crossing time, land and cultures, so loosen the tops of those salt shakers, switch out the toothpaste with foot cream, and don’t forget to wish a happy birthday to Fred and George Weasley.