April Fools’ Day is an annual celebration commemorated on April 1 by playing practical jokes and spreading hoaxes. The jokes and their victims are called April fools. People playing April Fool jokes often expose their prank by shouting “April fools” at the unfortunate victims.
Although April Fools’ Day, also called All Fools’ Day, has been celebrated for several centuries by different cultures, its exact origins remain a mystery.
April Fools’ Day: Origin and History
Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563.
People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.
These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.
Historians have also linked April Fools’ Day to festivals such as Hilaria, which was celebrated in ancient Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises.
There’s also speculation that April Fools’ Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather.
April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them.
April Fools’ Day: In modern times
In modern times, people have gone to great lengths to create elaborate April Fools’ Day hoaxes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and Web sites have participated in the April 1 tradition of reporting outrageous fictional claims that have fooled their audiences.
In 1957, the BBC reported that Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees; numerous viewers were fooled. In 1985, Sports Illustrated tricked many of its readers when it ran a made-up article about a rookie pitcher named Sidd Finch who could throw a fastball over 168 miles per hour.
In 1996, Taco Bell, the fast-food restaurant chain, duped people when it announced it had agreed to purchase Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. In 1998, after Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper,” scores of clueless customers requested the fake sandwich.
In popular culture
Books, films, telemovies and television episodes have used April Fool’s Day as their title or inspiration. Examples include Bryce Courtenay’s novel April Fool’s Day (1993), whose title refers to the day Courtenay’s son died. The 1990s sitcom Roseanne featured an episode titled “April Fools’ Day”. This turned out to be intentionally misleading, as the episode was about Tax Day in the United States on April 15 – the last day to submit the previous year’s tax information.
In the UK, an April Fool joke is revealed by shouting “April fool!” at the recipient, who becomes the “April fool”. A study in the 1950s, by folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, found that in the UK, and in countries whose traditions derived from the UK, the joking ceased at midday. This continues to be the current practice with the holiday ceasing at noon, after which time it is no longer acceptable to play jokes. Ergo, a person playing a joke after midday is considered the “April fool” themselves.
In Scotland, April Fools’ Day was traditionally called ‘Huntigowk Day’, although this name has fallen into disuse. The name is a corruption of ‘Hunt the Gowk’, “gowk” being Scots for a cuckoo or a foolish person; alternative terms in Gaelic would be Là na Gocaireachd, ‘gowking day’, or Là Ruith na Cuthaige, ‘the day of running the cuckoo’.
The traditional prank is to ask someone to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requests help of some sort. In fact, the message reads “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile. ” The recipient, upon reading it, will explain he can only help if he first contacts another person, and sends the victim to this next person with an identical message, with the same result.
In England a “fool” is known by different names around the country, including a “noodle”, “gob”, “gobby” or “noddy”.
In Ireland, it was traditional to entrust the victim with an “important letter” to be given to a named person. That person would then ask the victim to take it to someone else, and so on. The letter when finally opened contained the words “send the fool further”.
Prima aprilis in Poland
In Poland, prima aprilis (“1 April” in Latin) as a day of jokes is a centuries-long tradition. It is a day in which many jokes are told; various hoaxes – sometimes very sophisticated – are prepared by people, media (which often cooperate to make the “information” more credible) and even public institutions. Serious activities are usually avoided, and generally every word said on April 1st can be a lie, or a joke. The conviction for this is so strong that the Polish anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31. However, for some in Poland prima aprilis ends at noon of April 1st, and prima aprilis jokes after that hour are considered inappropriate and not classy.
Danes, Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes celebrate April Fools’ Day (aprilsnar in Danish; aprillipäivä in Finnish). Most news media outlets will publish exactly one false story on April 1; for newspapers this will typically be a first-page article but not the top headline.
In Italy, France, Belgium and French-speaking areas of Switzerland and Canada, April 1 tradition is often known as “April fish” (poissons d’avril in French, april vis in Dutch or pesce d’aprile in Italian). This includes attempting to attach a paper fish to the victim’s back without being noticed. Such fish feature is prominently present on many late 19th- to early 20th-century French April Fools’ Day postcards. Many newspapers also spread a false story on April Fish Day, and a subtle reference to a fish is sometimes given as a clue to the fact that it is an April fool’s joke.
In Lebanon, an April Fool joke is revealed by saying “كذبة أول نيسان ” (which means “April First Lie”) at the recipient.
In many Spanish-speaking countries (and the Philippines), “Dia de los Santos Inocentes” (Holy Innocents Day) is a festivity which is very similar to the April Fools’ Day, but it is celebrated in late December (27, 28 or 29 depending on the location, or January 10th for East Syrians).