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The History Behind April Fool’s Day

Apr 12, 2022 04:55PM ● By Henry M. Holden

A Laughing Fool. Netherlandish oil painting (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) ca. 1500. (LoC Public Domain Image.)

Scan your favorite newspaper or news website this April 1, and chances are you will see some headlines that look doubtful. Read further, and you will find that some of those stories are complete hoaxes, because it’s April Fools’ Day.

There have been several April Fool's Day pranks that have caught the public's eye through the years. One famous prank became known as The Great Spaghetti Harvest. In 1957, a BBC broadcaster announced that Switzerland had a heavy spaghetti crop for the year and even showed footage of people harvesting spaghetti off trees.

At the time, spaghetti was relatively unknown in the UK. Several viewers afterwards contacted the BBC for advice on growing their own spaghetti trees. CNN called this broadcast "the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled.”

But where do we get the strange custom of playing pranks on April 1? Well, nobody knows for sure. All we know is that the custom was known in Renaissance Europe but has roots much older than that.

 Traditional theory places the origin of April Fools Day in the Roman Empire and dates it to the reign of Emperor Constantine. According to the story, a group of court jesters convinced Constantine to make one of them “king for a day.” Constantine obliged, and made one king for a day. He decreed that it would be a day of cheerfulness, and thus created what came April Fools Day.

The only problem with that story was it was a hoax.  It was an April Fools Day prank, pulled by Boston University professor Joseph Boskin, on Associated Press reporter Fred Bayles, in 1983. Bayles reported the story, and the AP ran it, only to retract it days later. There is a good lesson here: Do not take as fact everything you read about April Fools Day. (But no worries, you can totally trust me!)

Many think the idea of April Fools Day goes back to Roman times, when a joyful festival called Hilaria, originally probably a spring equinox celebration, came to be celebrated on March 25. In Roman terms, March 25 was “the eighth of the Calends of April,” which associates the festival strongly with April 1, the Calends of April. However, there is no hard evidence to connect Hilaria with April Fools Day, so this is just another  speculation by curious people.

People have hypothesized about the origins of this holiday, suggesting that it was part of the Roman Saturnalia, a Druid rite in Britain, with a carnival-like medieval celebration of the Feast of Fools. But despite attempts to establish an earlier origin for the day, clear references to a tradition of fooling in April do not begin until the late Middle Ages.

It is possible that there is a glimpse of April Fools Day in Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” (ca. 1390), which shows the rooster being fooled by, and in turn fooling, a fox. This occurs “Syn March bigan, thritty dayes and two,” or 32 days after March began, i.e., April 1. This would be an early, clear reference to the date, but scholars think the word “bigan” is a scribal error, and that the intended date was May 2, thirty-two days after March was over. Even if this is true, the existence of such a scribal error could suggest that medieval scribes expected hoaxes to occur on April 1. But still, this does not qualify as hard evidence of an April Fools custom.

In France, “poisson d’avril,” or “April fish,” is the name for a person duped on April Fools Day. The first reference to “poisson d’avril” is from a 1508 poem by Eloy D’Amerval called Le Livre de la Diablerie, or The Book of Deviltry. However, from the context we can’t be sure if the author was referring to April 1 or to fools in general. The idea of the “April fish” seems to be the fact that fish were plentiful and hungry in the spring, and easy to catch. An “April fish” was more gullible than a fish at other times of the year. Thus, a mere reference to an “April fish” does not itself prove there was a holiday on April 1.

Some sources, such as Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, cite another 16th-century French origin: 1564, when the celebration of the New Year officially moved to January 1 by Charles IX’s Edict of Roussillon. According to Panati, the New Year had the celebration on March 25 because of the arrival of spring, with a week-long observance ending on April 1. Panati further claims:

Frenchmen who resisted the change, and others who forgot about it, continued partying and exchanging gifts during the week ending April 1.”

The real history of New Year’s observances in France is more complex, with different regions celebrating at various times. As early as 1507, books printed in France indicated that people were beginning the year on January 1. Besides, Panati does not provide any concrete evidence of any of his claims in the form of modern-day accounts or surviving invitations–not even for the claim of a week-long celebration, which is necessary to involve April 1 in the New Year change. In all, we will have to consider his story to be real, or a hoax on all of us.

The first certain reference to April Fools Day comes from a 1561 Flemish poem by Eduard De Dene. In the poem, a noble person sends his servant on crazy, fruitless errands. The servant recognizes that he is running on “fool’s errands” because it is April 1.