Some say that April Fools’ Day began in the 1500s when the Gregorian calendar took over from the Julian. Those who forgot the change and attempted to celebrate New Year’s (previously celebrated on the 1st of April) on the wrong date were teased as “April fools.”
When the western world employed the Julian calendar, years began on March 25. Festivals marking the start of the New Year were celebrated on the first day of April because March 25 fell during Holy Week. The adoption of the Gregorian calendar during the 1500s moved the New Year to January 1. According to the most widely-believed origin postulated for April Fools’ Day, those who could be tricked into believing April 1 was still the proper day to celebrate the New Year earned the sobriquet of April fools. To this end, French peasants would unexpectedly drop in on neighbors on that day in a effort to confuse them into thinking they were receiving a New Year’s call. Out of that one jape supposedly grew the tradition of testing the patience of family and friends.
There are at least two difficulties with this explanation. The first is that it doesn’t fully account for the spread of April Fools’ Day to other European countries. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted by England until 1752, for example, but April Fools’ Day was already well established there by that point. The second is that we have no direct historical evidence for this explanation, only conjecture, and that conjecture appears to have been made more recently.
Another explanation of the origins of April Fools’ Day was provided by Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University. He explained that the practice began during the reign of Constantine, when a group of court jesters and fools told the Roman emperor that they could do a better job of running the empire. Constantine, amused, allowed a jester named Kugel to be king for one day. Kugel passed an edict calling for absurdity on that day, and the custom became an annual event.
“In a way,” explained Prof. Boskin, “it was a very serious day. In those times fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.”
This explanation was brought to the public’s attention in an Associated Press article printed by many newspapers in 1983. There was only one catch: Boskin made the whole thing up. It took a couple of weeks for the AP to realize that they’d been victims of an April Fools’ joke themselves.
Others theories about the origins of April Fool’s Day are:
- The timing of this day of pranks seems to be related to the arrival of spring, when nature “fools” mankind with fickle weather, according to the Encyclopedia of Religion and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
- The Country Diary of Garden Lore, which chronicles the goings-on in an English garden, says that April Fools’ Day “is thought to commemorate the fruitless mission of the rook (the European crow), who was sent out in search of land from Noah’s flood-encircled ark.”
- Others theorize it may have something to do with the Vernal Equinox.
- Some think to tie in with the Romans’ end-of-winter celebration, Hilaria, and the end of the Celtic new year festival.
Wherever and whenever the custom began, it has since evolved its own lore and set of unofficial rules. Superstition has it that the pranking period expires at noon on the 1st of April and any jokes attempted after that time will call bad luck down onto the head of the perpetrator. Additionally, those who fail to respond with good humor to tricks played upon them are said to attract bad luck to themselves.
Not all superstitions about the day are negative, though — fellas fooled by a pretty girl are said to be fated to end up married to her, or at least enjoy a healthy friendship with the lass.
In Scotland, an April fool is called an April “gowk” — Scottish for cuckoo, an emblem of simpletons. In England, a fool is called a gob, gawby or gobby. In France, the victim of a hoax is called a “poisson d’avril,” an April fish. (“April fish” refers to a young fish, thus one easily caught.) The French delight in shouting “Poisson d’Avril!” at the denouement of the foolery. Some also insist all such pranks include a fish or at least a vague reference to same within the joke. Asking someone during a phone conversation to hold the line, then later returning to the call and inquiring of the victim if there’d been any bites is a popular groaner. So are pranks which trick the victim into placing calls to fish shops or the local aquarium.
The media can’t resist getting into the act. Radio personalities are especially drawn to creating playful hoaxes. The year Canada introduced a two-dollar coin, pranksters from CHEZ FM fooled listeners into believing April 1 was the last day the treasury would honor all the two-dollar bills still in circulation. Local banks and the Royal Canadian Mint fielded call after call from concerned citizens. That same year, other radio pranksters had people going through their pocket change in search of the elusive two-dollar coins which had mistakenly been minted from real gold.
Arguably the best media-generated April fools’ joke dates from a Richard Dimbleby “news report” aired on 1 April 1957 on BBC’s Panorama. It opened with a line about Spring coming early this year, prompting the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland to be early, too.
Against a video backdrop of happy peasant women harvesting spaghetti from trees, whimsical claims about the foodstuff’s cultivation were made in a straightfaced manner. Spaghetti’s oddly uniform length was explained as the result of years of dedicated cultivation. The ravenous spaghetti weevil which had wreaked havoc with harvests of years past had been conquered, said the report.
More than 250 viewers jammed the BBC switchboard after the hoax aired, most of them calling in with serious inquiries about the piece — where could they go to watch the harvesting operation? Could they buy spaghetti plants themselves? (For those anxious to try their hand at homegrown pasta, Panorama producer Michael Peacock offered this helpful hint: “Many British enthusiasts have had admirable results from planting a small tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce.”)
Although adults get into the spirit of things (ask any zoo worker about manning the phones on April 1 and having to field endless calls for Mr. Lyon, Guy Rilla, and Albert Ross), it’s the children that seem to truly celebrate the day with wild abandon. Not every teacher fights back, but those who do are often inventive about it. For more than 20 years, one grade school teacher in Boston comes in early on that day to write the day’s assignment upside down on the blackboard. When her curious students arrive, she tells them she did it by standing on the ceiling.
The style of April Fools’ pranks has changed over the years. Sending the unsuspecting on pointless errands was an especially prized practical joke in those earlier post-Julian days. In modern times, that form of pranking has shifted away from April Fools’ merriment and seemingly become a rite of initiation into many groups, both formal and informal. Rookie pilots are sent in search of a bucket of prop wash, and new carnies sent on wild goose chases for the elusive keys to the fairgrounds.
Current tastes seem to run more to funny phone calls and media-driven extravaganzas. But it’s still okay to reach back to older times for inspiration. Be a traditionalist — on April 1 send a co-worker to fetch a tube of elbow grease or 50 feet of shoreline.