The changing seasons typically bring in a lot of wonderful things. This is especially true as spring and summer roll in. Most of us are excited to see the gray of winter transition into the brilliant colors of spring. However, a lone sentry stands guard as we prepare to leave winter behind. The end of March means an end to winter. But it also means that April Fools’ Day is fast approaching.
Color Heralds All the Fun of an Upcoming Holiday
April Fools’ Day is an unusual holiday for several different reasons. We can begin with something notable for its absence – color. Most holidays are strongly associated with specific colors. We know Halloween is coming when orange and black start to become more common. Red and green reminds us that we need to start getting ready for Christmas. But what about April Fools’ Day? The answer to that question is a little more complicated than most of us would expect. To fully understand the colors of April Fools’ Day we first need to delve into the holiday’s history.
The Amusing History of the World’s Funniest Day
The most important thing to remember about the history of April Fools’ Day is that we shouldn’t take anything about it too seriously. Nobody really seems to know where the holiday came from. It’s like the day itself is trying to play a prank on anyone trying to take it too seriously. It’s hard not to smirk a bit at the idea of overly serious historians sighing in exasperation while they delve through historical documents. That said, we do have some good theories about the holiday’s origins. Interestingly enough, each origin also brings with it some different colors. This means that we can essentially cheer for our favorite take on the holiday by color-coding our pranks.
We often find April Fools’ Day jokes to be hilarious. But did you know that part of the word, hilaria, is Latin for “joyful”? What’s more, ancient Romans even had a Hilaria festival. This was the culmination of a larger celebration in honor of the goddess Cybele. During Hilaria, celebrants would engage in all manner of games and frivolities. Masks and costumes in particular were said to be quite common. And celebrants were even known to jokingly imitate people who were normally held in the utmost respect.
The festival took place on March 25th. It’s not an exact match for April Fools’ Day. But both the tone and timing are quite close to the modern holiday. And to be sure, modern western culture has adopted a vast array of Roman traditions. It’s quite possible that Hilaria persisted in some form over the centuries before melding into other local traditions to become April Fools’ Day.
We don’t know if Hilaria had any specific colors associated with it. But we do know that the goddess being honored is heavily associated with one particular color. In a myth associated with her, we see the creation of the world’s first violets. As such, the color violet would be the perfect choice to honor this aspect of April Fools’ Day.
The Vernal Equinox
Hilaria might be the first moment in recorded history that we can tie to April Fools’ Day. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that the end of March is tied to the vernal equinox. And we do know that the ancient druids marked the vernal equinox through Stonehenge. It’s not out of the question to think that they, or other traditions marking the occasion, might have decided to emphasize the unpredictability of the event. We always know that April is going to bring about some major changes in the weather. But the exact nature of those changes often seems to be up to the whim of fate. Anyone who assumed otherwise would be quite the fool indeed. This is especially true for agricultural societies which needed to stay in tune with the weather.
However, these ancient cultures didn’t partake in the meticulous record-keeping of ancient Rome. But we can get an idea of how to honor this aspect of the April Fools’ Day tradition by looking at how the ancient druids used colors within their order. This would at least give us a rough idea of the colors on display during a vernal equinox at Stonehenge.
The standard druid was said to wear white. Meanwhile, the arch-druid would stand out by wearing golden robes. Anyone deemed as a sacrifice would be marked in red. Artistic accompaniment by bards may well have factored into a celebration. That class of entertainers was associated with the color blue. Meanwhile, the newest recruits, somewhat similar to interns in the modern world, would wear brown or black.
A fun way to honor that tradition would be to try color coding more complex pranks which involve multiple people. For example, red could be used to designate the targets for a prank. For example, a group could be on the lookout for a friend, classmate, or coworker wearing red. A gold item could be passed around to let the rest of the group know whose lead should be followed. And people sent out to help prepare for the prank could dress in black.
From Julian to Gregorian
It’s likely that 1582 AD doesn’t mean much to you. However, that year marked a huge change for the western world as a whole. The Council of Trent switched from the Julian to Gregorian calendars. This declaration meant that the new year was celebrated on January 1st. Before then, as you might have guessed, the new year was marked on April 1st. It’s quite understandable that some people would go through their life unaware that the change had been set in motion.
We can imagine that people were incorrectly celebrating the new year on April 1st for some time after the declaration. And we even know that these people were referred to as a “poisson d’avril”, or easily caught fish of April, in France. The slang might be a little archaic. However, it’s a fairly clear accusation that a person who’s been a bit slow on the uptake should be mocked on April 1st. In fact, we even know that people would place paper fish on the backs of anyone who made such a mistake.
We can look for colors to highlight this tradition by partaking in France’s New Year’s traditions. It’s quite common for people in France to celebrate New Year’s with a la galette des rois. This cake, also known as a king cake, is usually colored in a rich golden brown. We could honor the ancient french poisson d’avril by incorporating this color, and perhaps the cake itself, into the day. A particularly kind prankster could even bake such a cake to soothe over any hurt feelings at the end of the day.
Hunting the Gowk
Next, we’ll move a bit further down the road of history to the 18th century. During this period we see the advent of a merry tradition in Scotland. People would try to send each other out on pointlessly elaborate errands. The most notable example comes from a plea to “hunt the gowk”. A gowk is another name for the cuckoo bird. Basically, it’s something of an in-joke to imply that someone is a cuckoo – or a fool.
As you might have guessed Hunt the Gowk Day, also known as Huntigowk Day, falls on April 1st. We don’t find any particular color strongly associated with this type of celebration. However, celebrants might try borrowing some color coordination from the cuckoo bird. The bird’s black and white patterns on the chest can be quite striking. This opens up a lot of opportunities to use the colors to draw people’s attention before playing a prank.
A Little Bit of Everything
This might seem like a wealth of possibilities. However, we’re really only scratching the surface. There’s a vast number of possible origins for April Fools’ Day. And of course, every choice of tradition comes with colors linked to those events or environments. However, there’s really one important point which we should always keep in mind about April Fools’ Day.
Coloring in Unpredictability
The most important thing to remember about the holiday is that it’s meant to be unpredictable. The lack of historical roots for the holiday really couldn’t be more fitting. We could spend years jumping from tradition to tradition every time the holiday came around. Each time we’d be decked out in different, but appropriate, colors. And every year we could grin earnestly and swear that we were celebrating April Fools’ Day in the way it was always intended right from the start. And in the end, we’d be quite correct in that judgment.
April Fools’ Day is a day of celebration of unpredictability. Every one of us has different ideas about how to bring a smile to the faces of our friends and family. Likewise, we know which colors hold special meaning within our own social circles. It’s fun to keep the traditions alive through color. But at the same time, we should always be ready to inject some color into the new traditions we create.
If a joke goes over well then we should make a note of how color played into it. Vision is such an important part of our lives that it’s almost certain colors influenced the event in one way or another. By noting the colors on display during a prank, you can incorporate it into the next April Fools’ Day. And in the process, you may well be starting a tradition of your own. Who knows, in 1,000 years historians might point to a bright red hat or hot pink shirt you wore for a joke as the official color of their take on the holiday.