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April Fools' Day: The Roots of our Silliest Holiday

People have always been stymied about the origins of April Fools' Day, dating all the way back to the late Middle Ages (as far as academics could confidently say). In 1760, the parody periodical Poor Robin's Almanac astutely asked a question on everyone's mind, including the line: "The First of April some do say/ Is set apart for all Fool's Day/ But why the people call it so/ Nor I nor they themselves do know."

From its origins—whether in Ancient Rome, medieval England, or Renaissance Europe—to today, April Fools' Day has always capitalized on a long-held human tradition: silliness. "Organized festivals and spontaneous personal acts that celebrate the absurd through pranks exist worldwide, and the motives for these behaviors are diverse and complex," Nancy Cassell McEntire wrote in her journal article for Western Folklore. Nearly every culture has historically commemorated trickery, pranks, and jesting in some way, especially around the changing of the seasons. (One of Halloween's hallmarks includes the "trick" in "trick and treat," after all.) Today, April 1 brings out tricksters in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and beyond, with their traditions ranging from superstitious to downright humiliating. As technology evolves, so, too, do pranks: April Fools' tricks are increasingly being carried out online, especially by large-scale corporations and media outlets.

Stacker sifted through hoaxes, pranks, and misconceptions to find the real origins of April Fools' Day, using academic research and historical documents. Read on to learn about the prank-filled history behind one of the calendar's trickiest holidays.

The murky origins of April Fools'

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April Fools' practices date at least back to Renaissance Europe, and probably before. The holiday could be tied to the ancient Roman festival of Hilaria, a late-March celebration focused on resurrection that involved dressing up in costumes. It may also have started with the Feast of Fools, a medieval celebration that mocked church hierarchy. It seems the holiday's origins have always been up for debate. Reader's Digest noted that as far back as 1708, a British magazine received a reader letter inquiring, "Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?"

Even one of the most common theories on the origins of April Fools' is itself an April 1st hoax: In 1983, a Boston University professor pranked an unsuspecting Associated Press reporter by feeding him the yarn that April Fools' started as a jester-led celebration during the Roman emperor Constantine's reign. The AP ran the story, and though they quickly retracted it days later, the anecdote is still believed to be fact by many.

What's with April 1st?

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This iconic date could be due to a calendar mix-up: quite appropriate for a trickery-themed holiday. During the 1500s, France switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, thus shifting the first day of the new year from April 1 back to Jan. 1. But many were slow to adapt to the new changes—either out of stubbornness or how slowly word spread—and continued to celebrate the new year in April. Those latecomers were often mocked, and one common prank for those late to the news included having a paper fish stuck to their backs. They were then jeered and called "April fish"—a "poisson d'avril." (Think a medieval version of a "kick me" sign.)

Some of the first references to April 1st as a designated holiday included a 1561 Flemish poem titled "Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April" and a 1686 novel that makes an English reference to "Fooles holy day" on April 1.

Foolish traditions around the world

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Because April Fools' draws on the near-universal history of feasts and holidays indulging in absurdity and tricks, it is celebrated widely around the world.

France has kept the poisson d'avril tradition alive and well. In notoriously prank-happy Scotland, April Fools' is stretched out over two days, Hunt the "Gowk" (or "cuckoo") being the first. On April 1, friends attempt to trick each other into aimless deliveries, echoing that 1561 Flemish poem that depicted the same. The second day, Taily Day, is possibly the origin of the all-too-familiar "kick me" sign many are pinned with on April Fools'.

In Greece, April Fools' pranks have a more superstitious end, with successful pranks bringing a year's worth of good luck to their schemers and rainfall on the day marking widespread healing of maladies. This is closer in nature to Iran, which celebrates Sizdah Bedar on April 1, a New Year's celebration that involves purging out the number 13.

Modern-day April Fools'


Many pranks are now taking place online, rather than in person, with many people nowadays choosing satirical posts over physical gags. As modern media has evolved and grown, so, too, have the pranks: many media outlets have joined in on the joke, exponentially growing the reach of once-simple pranks.

Netflix, for one, has made a yearly tradition of sneaking in some antics, including announcing the addition of a livestream of Will Arnett's narrating everyday tasks on the Netflix campus in 2017 and pretending to have bought the actor Seth Rogen in 2018.

Rather than person-to-person pranks, many April Fools' pranks are now going corporate, with large companies and brands seizing the opportunity to build a personal connection with their customers. Everyone from Amazon to Expedia has joined in on the fun in the last decade, raising the stakes every year.

Notable pranks gone wrong

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April Fools' pranks have been ambitious in scope as far back as 1698, when crowds of people were duped into traveling to the Tower of London to see lions being washed—an exotic phenomenon that would have been highly entertaining—if it were actually happening.

In 1957, the BBC broadcast a reel of farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees in Switzerland. In 1992, NPR's "Talk of the Nation" had a convincing Richard Nixon impersonator announce a post-impeachment run for president.

Of course, some hoaxes and pranks have gone awry.

In 1749, when showgoers filled a London theater on the promise of witnessing a man squeeze into a bottle, they rioted when they realized there was no show after all. Centuries later, in 2003, an Ohio clothing store worker called her boss pretending that the store was being robbed; she was a little too convincing: Her employer called the police, and the worker was arrested on the spot.

All these pranks needed a certain kind of bravado, perhaps too much for comfort. So whenever dreaming up a new foolishness to pursue, remember to play nice and make sure no one gets hurt, including their feelings.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close.


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