April Fools’ Day: How Did It Start and Why Is It April 1?

The origins of the prank-lovers' favorite holiday are murky. In fact, it's possible that the entire concept of April Fools' Day is, itself... a prank. Or is it?

The origin of April Fools’ Day is debated, but its history covers centuries of pranks, from family high jinks (like pranks to play on your parents), to pranks that went horribly wrong, to gags at the public’s expense. On the evening of April 1, 1957, thousands of British families tuned in to watch Panorama—still one of the U.K.’s top current events broadcasts—to witness footage of a happy Swiss family harvesting their prized spaghetti trees. Unbeknownst to many viewers, the four-minute “news” segment, which showed strands of cooked pasta dangling from the trees in a family vineyard (which sounds like a great April Fools’ Day prank for kids to us!), was an intricate hoax devised by a freelance cameraman and produced for the then-princely sum of 100 pounds. Even with inflation, none of the best April Fools’ pranks to pull this year will break the bank. But forget the hundreds of angry letters and bitter newspaper headlines that followed—the show’s staff were “very pleased with [themselves],” having successfully elevated the April Fools’ Day punking to a national level. Your pranking ambitions might be a little more modest, and a little more local, but what gave rise to those ambitions in the first place? And why do we collectively try to pull a fast one on April 1st? Let’s look into the origin of April Fools’ Day.

What is the origin of April Fools’ Day?

There’s no question that April Fools’ Day is one of the most widely recognized non-religious holidays in the Western world. Children prank parents, coworkers prank coworkers, and yes, national news outlets and fast-food restaurants still prank their readers. But why? What is the origin of April Fools’ Day, and how did it become an international phenomenon? The totally-legit, not-pulling-your-leg answer to the origin of April Fools’ Day is: Nobody really knows. April Fools’ Day is apparently an ancient enough tradition that the earliest recorded mentions, like the following excerpt from a 1708 letter to Britain’s Apollo magazine, ask the same question we do: “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” Celebrate the long-running tradition of jokes with these April Fools’ Day office pranks that basically anyone can pull off.

Could this Roman tradition be just a coincidence?

One likely predecessor to the origin of April Fools’ day is the Roman tradition of Hilaria, a spring festival held around March 25 in honor of the first day of the year longer than the night (we call this the vernal equinox, which typically falls on March 20). Festivities included games, processions, and masquerades, during which disguised commoners could imitate nobility to devious ends. They should have stuck with these April Fools’ jokes to make everyone laugh.

It’s hard to say whether this ancient revelry’s similarities to modern April Fools’ Day are legit or coincidence, as the first recorded mentions of the holiday didn’t appear until several hundred years later.

When is April Fools’ Day?

For hundreds of years, April Fools’ Day has been an annual happening on the first of April. In 1561, a Flemish poet wrote some comical verse about a nobleman who sends his servant back and forth on ludicrous errands in preparation for a wedding feast (the poem’s title roughly translates to “Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April”).  The first mention of April Fools’ Day in Britain comes in 1686 when biographer John Aubrey described April first as a “Fooles holy day.” Here are some hilarious text pranks to pull on your best fools—I mean friends.

It’s clear that the habit of sending springtime rubes on a “fool’s errand” was rampant in Europe by the late 1600s. On April Fools’ Day, 1698, so many saps were tricked into schlepping to the Tower of London to watch the “washing of the lions” (a ceremony that doesn’t exist) that the April 2 edition of a local newspaper had to debunk the hoax —and publicly mock the schmoes who fell for it.

From there, it’s a pretty straight line between lion washing and spaghetti farming. And while we may not know the origin of April Fools’ Day, it’s clear the pranking holiday speaks to the inner jerk in so much of humanity, and is therefore here to stay. Mark your calendars for April 1 so you’ll never have to ask “when is April Fools'” ever again. For inspiration on all the best jokes, here are some of the greatest April Fools’ pranks in all of history.

Sources

  • BBC News: “Is this the best April Fool’s ever?”
  • NPR: “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?”
  • Sir Henry Ellis: “Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Faiths and Folklore; a Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, with Their Classical and Foreign Analogues Described and Illustrated, Volume 1″
  • Museum of Hoaxes: “The Washing of the Lions”