Would it surprise you to learn that April Fools’ Day, celebrated every year on April 1, has been celebrated for thousands of years in many countries and communities around the world? Today, April Fools’ Day is generally celebrated as a day of mischievous and (hopefully) harmless pranks put on by both individuals and mass media, but it hasn’t always been that way. Let’s explore the mostly true history of April Fools’ Day.
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Have you ever wondered WHY April Fools’ Day is celebrated on April 1st? I have too, and so have many historians and scholars throughout history. Unfortunately, no one really knows for sure what the true history of April Fools’ Day is, but there are a few theories, most of which relate to the beginning of Spring and, as with many things, the changing of the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.
A reference to April Fools’ Day is found in French poetry dating to around 1508, with some scholars placing the very first reference of the holiday to 1392 with Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale. But, like many things relating too, or coming from, Chaucer, this reference has been debated. We can rest assured though that the very first, actual reference to April Fools’ Day appeared a poem written in 1561 about a nobleman who sends his servants on foolish errands on April 1st.
Other scholars believe that the tradition of someone being an ‘April fool’ goes back to when the first day of the New Year was celebrated during the Spring Equinox, but was moved to January 1st in the Gregorian calendar. With no cell phones or television news programs, the change was slow to spread and even slower to be adopted, and those who continued to celebrate the new year on April 1st were considered “April fools.” Other theories also associate April Fool’s Day traditions with the Roman festival Hilaria, which honored Cybele (the mother of the Gods) where participants would masquerade as other people, including those in power, and play pranks and perform satirically.
Let’s first learn about some April Fools’ traditions around the world and then we’ll learn about a few of the greatest April Fools’ Pranks ever!
- In the British Isles, especially Scotland and Ireland, a traditional prank is to send someone on a “fools errand” and have them bring a letter to someone believing that help of some sort is requested. The recipient then opens the letter and sees that it is in fact a prank and the letter reads something to the effect of “send the fool on an another errand.” The recipients then says that they can only help if they request help from someone else, and sends the “fool” off again to the next person and the prank repeats. Incidentally, in Britain, pranks are only supposed to be played BEFORE noon, or else the person playing the prank is considered the fool themselves!
- Some countries, like France and Italy, April Fools’ Day is called ‘poisson d’avril‘ meaning ‘April fish’ a reference to a person being ‘easily caught” or gullible. Pranks include attaching a fish to someone’s back or false news stories involving a fish.
- Other countries take April Fools’ Day very seriously, with any serious business, even government contracts and agreements, postponed until the following day because they believe that anything could be a prank or rendered illegitimate! Some news media outlets will collaborate with pranksters to give even more legitimacy to the hoaxes.
- Odesa, Ukraine is known for its April Fools’ Day parades and festivities, and the saying ‘April 1, I trust nobody.”
Through the history of April Fools’ Day, there have been many famous pranks by news organizations that have resulted in confusion and hilarity. The oldest one is thought to have started in 1698 when Londoners were told to come to the Tower of London to watch the ‘washing of the lions’ which of course was a prank. This prank was so successful that it continued for hundreds of years, mostly as a prank on tourists, and including the distribution of fake tickets.
Perhaps the most famous mass media hoax was in 1957, when the British Broadcasting Network declared that Swiss pasta farmers were experiencing a bumper crop of spaghetti that year, and they even posted pictures and video of farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees! Thousands of people contacted the BBC to ask how they could get their own pasta tree! Take a few minutes and watch the original news clip – it pretty convincing for the time period, and I can see how some people might have been fooled.
Other pranks over the years has been the purchase of the Liberty Bell by Taco Bell to be renamed The Liberty Taco Bell; Big Ben in London going digital; a UFO landing in London; Alabama changing the value of Pi, and more! Explore the Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of All Time at the Museum of Hoaxes.
April Fools’ Day pranks can be fun, community building, and can also result in some hilarious outcomes especially when they are perpetuated by mass media. However, there are many elements of April Fools’ Day that can result in hurt feelings, bullying, and many unintended consequences, so please be mindful to keep this a fun and engaging holiday, and leave the mean pranks and jokes at home. It’s never ok to do something unkind and then say “April Fools’!”
Here’s a few links to some pranks you can pull on your kids that should be funny and harmless! Maybe first though have a conversation about April Fools’ Day and if pranks are something your family and friends wants to do. Most importantly, have fun with this centuries old tradition!