By Aileen Marshall
April Fools’ Day is celebrated on April 1. This is the day when it’s common to pull pranks on friends and false news stories run rampant. However, the truth is always revealed later that day. While not an official holiday, the practice is commonly accepted.
No one really knows when the tradition started. Many cultures going back to ancient times have a spring rite of turning the social order upside down, when unacceptable behavior acceptable just for that day, as a way of celebrating winter’s end. In England, the tradition is that the prank must be pulled and then revealed by noon. Anyone who attempts a prank after noon is considered the fool.
Iran has the oldest pranking tradition, some speculate this is where the practice started. Sizdah Bedar, as it’s called, dates back to 536 BC. Additionally, the ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Hilaria March 25, paying tribute to the rebirth of Attis, the son of Cybele, the mother goddess—merrymaking and costumes were common. Another early rite is the Indian festival of Holi. It usually falls at the end of February or March. This is the holiday when people throw colored powder at each other. Purim is the Jewish festival celebrating the survival of the Jews marked for death in Persia in the 5th century BC. It’s usually occurs in February or March and includes costumes, feasting, and acting out the story.
The earliest written reference to April Fools’ Day appears in 1392 in Chauncer’s Canterbury Tales. In “The Nun’s Priest Tale,” the vain cock Chauntecler is fooled by a fox. The text reads, “syn March bigan thritty dayes and two.” Some scholars speculate that this is an indicator that the tradition of fooling people on April 1 was already established.
The most popular origin theory for the tradition of April Fools’ is the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Tradition before that, particularly in Europe, was to celebrate New Year’s Day near the end of March or the beginning of April. Pope Gregory’s calendar moved New Year’s Day to January 1. France adopted the new calendar in 1582. Due to the illiteracy rate at that time, poor communication, and even reluctance to change their traditions, many people continued to celebrate the New Year in the spring. Those who were aware of the new calendar called those people April Fools and would pull pranks on them. They would stick paper fish on their backs and yell out “poisson d’avril” or April fish. There is some criticism of this theory. The habit of celebrating New Year’s in April was more predominant in England, and they didn’t adopt the new calendar until 1752, at which point April Fool’s was a well-established holiday.
The term “poisson d’avril” is still in use today. It comes from the observation of French fisherman that young fish in the spring were easy to catch or fool. There are references to poisson d’avril dating back to the early 1500s, another fact that contradicts the Gregorian calendar theory.
The term “a fool’s errand” seems to come from the April Fools’ Day tradition. Especially in Scotland, it was a common April Fools’ prank to give someone a note to give to some person a distance away. When the victim got there, that person would send them to another person, and so on, since the note said it was an April Fools’ prank. Starting in the 1700s, it has been a popular prank in London to send people to the Tower of London to see the washing of the lions. Some people have even bought tickets, but such a ceremony does not exist.
The most famous April Fools’ prank occurred in 1957. BBC news reported Switzerland’s abundant spaghetti harvest that year. They showed a video clip of spaghetti plants being harvested. People called in asking how they could get their own spaghetti plants. They were told to put a sprig of spaghetti in some tomato sauce. The BBC admitted to the prank only the next day.
If you see or hear anything on the morning of April 1 that does not seem quite right, be careful you don’t become an April fool.