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Essay's of Hugh Haliburton (James Logie Robertson)
All Fools' Day


It is with a touch of characteristic humour that Lamb, in the delightful essays of Elia, makes incidental reference to All Fools' Day as "the general holiday." The expression may be said to imply sarcasm, but there is no sting in it—for it covers the speaker. It is genial and gently insinuated. As genially inclusive but more explicit is the testimony of Sir Walter: "All Fools' Day, the only saint that keeps up some degree of credit in the world; for fools we are with a vengeance." How different is the direct denunciation of Carlyle, that the population of these islands—a representative community—amounts to so many millions, "mostly fools!" One is certain the grim censor did not include himself.

There is a time for everything, says Solomon; and the world, in addition to indiscriminate and mostly unseasonable indulgence of the frailty, has even set apart a statutory time for the practice of folly. Even the grave and ponderous Roman, dominus orbis terrarutn, stooped to hy-jinks, arjd found it sweet in its place; he permitted the Saturnalia, when Davus domineered, and he donned the demeanour of Davus, and topsyturvydom reigned in the social world. Christianity, which put an end to the folly of Pagan worship, found it a harder task to suppress the folly of Pagan fun, and was fain to compound for the loss of its dignity by a nominal control of the popular instinct. From the compromise are said to have sprung the institutions of Christmas and Hogmanay, and the figures of the Monks of Misrule and the Abbots of Unreason, and other similar mediaeval phenomena. All Fools' Day, which for some centuries now has been associated with the first day of April, is believed by many to have been one of those phenomena. Nobody needs to be told that the essential feature of the celebration of All Fools' Day is to dispatch the simple or the unwary on some meaningless message or absurd errand. This feature of the festival is supposed to have been caught, by the old unregenerate heathen appetite for fun, out of the mysteries or miracle plays by means of which the early Church sought to combine religious instruction and amusement for the benefit of the masses. A favourite subject for such entertainment at Easter was the trial of Christ, in the course of which the impersonator of Jesus was sent backwards and forwards from tribunal to tribunal—from Caiaphas to Annas and from Herod to Pilate—in endless journeys, until it was decided in whose jurisdiction the trial was to proceed. The rude mob, it is argued, saw exquisite fun in those endless wanderings, and took to imitating it in the privacy of their own neighbourhood by practising upon some witless or simple-minded acquaintance. By and by the custom, from the very first an Easter one, got to be definitely associated with an easily remembered^date, the ist of April; and the connection once established, has existed ever since. This explanation is probably more ingenious than genuine.

The Romans had their indulgence of foolery, as by law appointed, in December at the Feast of Saturn; over most, if not all, Europe at the present time, and for the last four or five centuries at least, the time for this indulgence has been fixed at the first day of April. It is impossible to say authoritatively when or why the change was made. Of course, it is possible that European contemporary nations of the Saturnalian age at Rome had their Fools' Festival, north of the Danube or west of the Rhine, at a different time of the year, perhaps even at a time corresponding to our 1st of April. It is certainly curious, and to the ethnologist suggestive, that from time immemorial the inhabitants of India, of all ranks, races, and religions, have kept a holiday of the same kind and at much the same season as All Fools' Day. This is the festival (in honour of Krishna and his son Kama, the god of love) variously known as the Holi, Huli, or Hulica. It begins about the middle of March, and continues for fifteen days, a special effort to accentuate the festival being reserved for the last day—which, it should be observed, is the day preceding the 1st of April. In the larger towns the British have restricted the holiday season, for various obvious reasons, to a couple of days or so. A learned authority on the large and labyrinthine subject of Hindoo Mythology writes as follows: "The Huli among the Hindus reminds one strongly of the Saturnalia with the Romans; people of low condition take liberties with their superiors in a manner not admissible on other occasions. The chief fun in public is throwing coloured powders on the clothes of persons passing in the streets, and squirting about tinted waters. . . . Sending simpletons on idle errands contributes also to the delights of the Huli, and this is performed exactly similar to our English ceremony of making April Fools on the first of that month, and is common to all ranks of Hindus; and Mohammedans join in it. Elsewhere he writes: "During the whole period of fifteen days the people go about scattering powder and red liquor over each other, singing, and dancing, and annoying passengers by mischievous tricks, coarse witticisms, and vulgar abuse."

Each country in Europe would seem to have its own way of designating the simple-minded victim of the i st of April. He is in France an April fish, in England an April fool, and a gowk in Scotland. The time-honoured institution of "fool-making" in England is as active as ever it was. But the practice, as in Scotland, is now chiefly confined, to young folks and rustics. The liberties taken by the practitioners of the pastime are ridiculous, but harmless enough. Punch's sketch is a representative one. "Fust of Hapril, sir!" says boy in buttons, with a grin, as his high and* mighty master breaks an empty egg at the breakfast table. To pin a piece of paper to the coat-tail of a grave senior; to leave on his back an impression in chalk of the legend To Let; to arrest his attention by the untruthful announcement that he has dropped his diary; at worst, to convey to him, with a serious face, the false message that Mr This or Mrs That would like to see him immediately on a matter of importance—is generally the amount of the roguery. Now and again an absent-minded philosopher or simple-minded Nathanael is entrapped—without an occasional victim the game would die out—and great is the delight of the trickster. The victim, if he be wise, or has at least some lingering vestiges in his heart of a vanished youth-time, takes the innocent deception good-humouredly, as a sensible man in a frequented thoroughfare takes the liberty of the wind with his fugitive hat.

The age of the institution of fool-making in England has never been clearly made out. There are few traces of it in literature [Congreve, in The Old Bachelor defines an April fool as a person who is "always upon some errand that's to no purpose, ever embarking in adventures, yet never coming to harbour."— Heartwell in Act I. scene iv.] or the social history of the country before the seventeenth century. Swift's ineffectual attempt to make April fools of fashionable London, by starting an absurd rumour, is well known. The great Dean was fond to a fault of practical joking, and if the project failed it was neither his nor his footman's fault; his fellow-conspirators forgot or neglected their part of the plot.

In Scotland the victim of an idle errand is called a gowk, and is said to "gang the gowk's aerend." Occasionally the daft-like errand consumes a solid day. As thus: Tammas, a sober and respectable peasant, who takes life somewhat too seriously, departs in his Sunday coat with a letter purporting (believe the apprentice!) to come from the local grocer, and addressed to a bonnet laird living some six or eight miles in the virgin wilderness. The laird spells his way silently through the enclosure ("Give the gowk his dinner and send him on !"), and, being equal to the occasion, keeps a composed countenance, scrawls a similar missive to a distant neighbour, and dispatches the gowk with it, perhaps six miles farther into a dreary upland of whaaps and whins. The game goes on while daylight endures, and at last, on the stroke of curfew, the half-suspicious and wholly bewildered wanderer returns to the local grocer, having accomplished his destined rounds. The local grocer reads the note he brings, and at a glance perceives the posture of affairs. He asks the bearer if he knows what is in the note, and handing it to him, remarks, in a tone meant to be conciliatory—"Ye ken, Tammas, this is the first of Aprile; but ye've gotten a braw day an' a fine view o1 the country!" Meanwhile the grocer's apprentice, though it is "shutting-up " time, suddenly finds something to do at the farthest end of the village.

The connection of the gowk with the first of April is commonly, I believe, misunderstood. "Gowk" in Scotland has long been synonymous with "fool." "You may think me rather foolishly employed," wrote young Michael Bruce to a correspondent (in a letter, by the way, of considerable literary significance), "for I am writing a sang about a gowk." The reference is believed to be to the famous "Ode to the Cuckoo," attributed by some to the Kinneswood poet's younger companion, John Logan. In England also, for at least three centuries, a stupid person has now and again been called "cuckoo." "O' horseback, ye cuckow!" says Falstaff, correcting a misapprehension of Prince Hal's. But naturalists tell us the gowk is rather rogue than fool. It makes its home in another bird's nest; it practises on the simplicity of its neighbours. Leaving its parental cares to others, it

"makes on joyful wing,
Its annual visit round the globe,
Companion of the spring."

To go the gowk's errand may mean to go, like it, wandering from land to land without coming to any settlement. More probably to go the gowk's errand is to go for the bird—to find and fetch it. This is no easy matter, for the bird is both shy and rare; its ubiquity is only apparent. Its note is loud, unique, and ventriloquial; it is "at once far off and near." It was an invisible mystery to Wordsworth, who had keen eyes and long acquaintance with country objects. Its cry made him "look a thousand ways in bush, and tree, and sky." Not many have seen a live cuckoo. Its " curious shout" may attract the attention of every individual in a district, but it is probably the shout of one bird after all. There may have been a transference of the bird's name to the person sent to find and fetch the bird, i.e., dispatched on a vain and idle errand.


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