I hope I don’t need to tell you that the internet is going to be an absolute hellscape today, April Fools’ Day. Brands on social media are going to play “pranks” on their audiences who already pay little attention to their tweets. These companies are, I regret to tell you, following a longstanding tradition of customer trickery: In 1996, Taco Bell used April Fools’ Day to announce it was purchasing Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell, much to the ire of the American public. Not one to be upstaged—no matter what the cost, apparently—Burger King ran actual advertisements for a “Left-Handed Whopper,” a sandwich designed exclusively for lefties. Unbelievably, duped customers reportedly went to the drive-thru and tried to order it.
Appropriately, April Fools’ Day has something of an elusive history. There are some historians who say its origins lie in the ancient Roman festival “Hilaria,” which saw people dressed in disguise and mocking their neighbors. Others insist the term April Fools’ actually comes from the famous switch of the Gregorian calendar; previously, the beginning of the new year started with the spring equinox (which happens around April 1st), so people who still celebrated the New Year according to the old traditions were called “April fools.” Either way, the spirit of the holiday persisted throughout the centuries and is still carried on today—even if it’s mostly done so by overpaid marketing executives.
We mostly have negative connotations with the concept of “the fool,” which is exactly why I recoiled when I first saw the card in a Tarot deck. If you’ve ever gotten a Tarot reading, you know there are just some cards you’d rather not see: The Devil, Death, The Tower, the Ten of Swords, the Three of Swords, and so forth. None of the cards are really “bad” or “good,” per se, which you learn with a little bit more practice and critique, but these particular examples tend to indicate that something difficult is either on the way or currently being experienced. I assumed The Fool—which shows an image of a lavishly dressed individual about to walk right off a cliff—was one of them. This logic, of course, tracks perfectly with our connotations of April Fools’ Day.
That’s why I was shocked to learn that, according to Tarot expert Rachel Pollack, The Fool holds a wisdom all their own. “The Fool represents true innocence, a kind of perfect state of joy and freedom, a feeling of being one with the spirit of life at all times,” she writes. “‘Innocence’ is a word often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean ‘without guilt,’ but rather a freedom and an openness to life, a lack of fear that comes through a faith in living in your own instinctive self.” In other words, The Fool was not a card spelling doom for some gullible idiot who would soon fall to his death. Some Tarot experts believe The Fool is actually something of a hallowed figure; we need their energy and optimism to unlock whatever full and limitless potential this life has to offer.
The social worker and Tarot reader Jessica Dore views The Fool in a complementary kind of way. “They are a bit of a misfit,” she says, “but the type whose weirdness and nonconformity turns out to be inextricably linked with sacredness and salvation.” They are, as she explains it, a “rule breaker.” When the card arrives in a reading, Dore will ask the querent about what assumptions they’re living under, and what’s in need of challenging or rule breaking.
In this kind of reading, the card doesn’t represent you so much as it represents how you may be perceived (or how you may fear you’re being perceived for taking that risk or leap of faith). Precisely because you are forging your own path, you may be played for a Fool—when in reality, maybe you’re on a journey whose benefit only you can understand.
“In an old tale, whenever there’s trouble—someone’s in need of saving, everything’s gone wrong, there’s no way out—the antidote always comes from someone in the margins,” Dore points out. “It’s never the King that saves the day—it’s the vagrant or the youngest sibling nobody believed in.” Any good tale that begins with the underdog or the unlikely hero is playing off of the archetype of The Fool. Just like Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings or any superhero origin story that involves the protagonist suddenly discovering their powers at exactly the right moment, The Fool can act as a good omen to believe in ourselves and trust the process.
I find that the more I read about the Tarot as a concept, the more I come to appreciate the different wisdom and stories that accompany the cards. A lot of people recoil at the divination aspect of the Tarot—and trust me, coming from a Catholic upbringing, I understand. (I’m pretty sure my Dad once said the Tarot was “the Devil’s work.”) It’s interesting now to look back at my knee-jerk reactions to the cards and what those instincts say about me personally. My fear of The Fool feels appropriate: I’ve always been the youngest person in many an intimidating corporate setting, and I’ve often held roles that involved a certain degree of public-facing pressure. My worst fear was that I would be perceived as—or worse, played for—a fool.
After a little bit of time, though, I realized that whatever made me special or valuable in those settings was exactly what The Fool embodies: a fearless, devil-may-care attitude, a hungry kind of optimism, and a lack of awareness about the limited appetite for change. It was only when I got burnt out along the Fool’s journey that I felt a lot less in touch with whatever magic I had to offer those around me. Now, when the card comes up in a reading, I smile. Sometimes, it feels like a message to take things less seriously—as woo-woo as that sounds. Other times, it feels like an old friend, reminding me that there’s a fine line between being wise and being jaded.
Look: If the Tarot or pranks and tricks aren’t your thing, then perhaps an alternative way to honor April Fools’ Day is to figure out what in your life could use a little bit more of that Fool’s optimism. “Find a rule that you have for yourself and break it,” Dore says. “Do something you wouldn’t normally do—bonus points if it’s something you always say you’d never do. Then, reflect on how it feels.” You can always start by making a list of your “nevers”—be they sky-diving or eating snails—and find a partner to help you break one of the lower-stakes items first.
Or, you could reflect on a time in your life when you felt like you were beginning the Fool’s Journey—and find out whatever it is you need to get back on that terrifying-but-exciting unbeaten path. April Fools’ Day for me is always a reminder that my birthday is just around the corner. And this year, my 30th around the sun, feels like the perfect time to honor this miraculous life by taking it a little less seriously.