Later this week, on April 1, it is quite possible that you – or someone you know – will play an April Fools’ Day joke. April Fools’ Day (sometimes called All Fools’ Day) is a fun holiday, known for its hijinks. Tricks great and small are played on friends, family and even the world at large. Despite its widespread popularity in Western culture, though, no one truly knows how the holiday came to be. It is important to note that playing tricks on others depends on where you are: In Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom, jokes are only supposed to be played until noon. In the U.S., Russia, Japan, Ireland, Canada, France, Italy and The Netherlands, jokes can last all day.
Possible Origins for April Fools’ Day
There are a number of theories about why we have April Fools’ Day. One of the most common has to do with the switch to the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. Pope Gregory XIII effected this change, moving the start of the New Year to January 1, instead of April 1. During the Middle Ages, the Feast of Annunciation was celebrated on March 25, and festivities often lasted a full week, ending with the beginning of the New Year on April 1. Those who didn’t get the memo (or were staunch traditionalists) were called “April Fools,” and tricks were played on them, with the practice spreading throughout Europe.
As plausible as this explanation sounds, it may not be the origin of April Fools’ Day. References to “April Fools” have been around since before 1582, and the English didn’t even adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 — and April 1 tricks were played in that country before the arrival of the change.
Another explanation is that the change of seasons from winter to spring brings out lightheartedness and a propensity for fun. Hilaria was a Roman festival of rejoicing that took place around March 25, and the Hindu Holi, as well as the Jewish Purim, are happy festivals that take place in the general vicinity of the beginning of April. Other references to April Fools’ Day origins include a misconstrued reference in Canterbury Tales (Chaucer, 1392), “April fish” from a French poet in 1539, and a story from Flemish poet Eduard de Dene about a nobleman who made up up foolish errands for his servant on April 1.
The best “theory” about April Fools’ Day’s origins was itself an April Fools’ Day joke. In 1983, the AP ran a story quoting Joseph Boskin, a history professor at Boston University. He said that April Fools’ Day originated with the emperor Constantine, who allowed a jester to run the empire for one day. While the jester, named Kugel, was emperor, he declared that each year, to commemorate the day he ruled, a day of absurdity should be held. Of course, no such thing ever happened — Boskin was pulling his own April Fools’ Day joke.
Below are some famous pranks on this day:
- 1957: The BBC runs a program about spaghetti trees. Scores of people contact the BBC, wanting information on growing their own spaghetti trees.
- 1962: Swedish television explains the physics behind using a nylon stocking to change black and white TV to color TV. Many call the station angry that it didn’t work.
- 1996: Taco Bell announces that it has bought the Liberty Bell, renaming the “Taco Liberty Bell.” When asked about, the White House press secretary responded that the Lincoln Memorial had also been purchased, and was now the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
- 2005: NASA’s official posts a story that there are pictures of water on Mars. When people got to look at the picture, they find an image of a glass of water balanced on top of a Mars candy bar.
- 2008: CBC Radio reports that Canada would replace it’s $5 coin with a $3 coin called the “threenie”.
There are, of course, countless hoaxes played on April Fools’ Day, some of the small and some quit big. And, of course, you have to be careful of almost anything you read online on April 1.