The Origins of April Fools’ Day

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April Fools’ Day, one of the more light-hearted days of the year. But how did the day come about, most just see it as a day of the year without knowing any explanation behind it. Well perhaps that is because the origins are a little unknown, there are many theories behind April Fools’ Day or All Fools’ Day as it is sometimes known. It has even been a question asked by people in the past, “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?”, a question asked by a correspondent in the British Apollo magazine. So let’s see the potential origins then.

The most popular theory is that April 1st became what it is when the calendars changed in 1582; Pope Gregory XIII ordered the new Gregorian Calendar as a replacement to the Julius Calendar, this would change the first day of a new year to January 1st rather than April 1st. The theory is that some people chose to ignore the new calendar and opposed the change, they would still celebrate New Year’s Day at the start of April. Other people who adopted the new calendar then began to make fun of them when they celebrated New Year’s day on April 1st. It began with people tricking them into believing things that were false, aswell as sending them on “fools errands”, the practice eventually spread and grew throughout Europe.

Despite that theory being the most notable and popular there are theories that April Fools’ Day began as far back as the Roman Empire. There was the story of Kugel and Constantine which was created by history professor Joseph Boskin, which actually was an elaborate April Fools’ Day joke that gathered momentum and was published by a number of news outlets as fact despite being a joke. However the Roman Empire did have a festival called Hilaria which was celebrated on the Vernal Equinox which was at the end of March and included “The Day of Joy” which was the true day of Hilaria. The day incorporated games, masquerades and amusements, it was a cheerful day, a day in a similar vein to April Fools’ then.

There have also been more concrete hints to April Fools’ Day before the change to the Gregorian Calendar such as a Flemish poem by Eduard de Dene from 1561, it’s about a nobleman sending his servants on fools errands and also referring to it as an April 1 joke. It does appear that the 16th century was when the playing of jokes on the first day of April gained widespread recognition. There is also a 1508 reference to the April Fools’ custom with reference to “poisson d’Avril”, which is a French April Fools’ Day that incorporates eating chocolate fish and sticking paper fish on unsuspecting people’s backs. This makes the origins seem to be from Northern continental Europe with the adoption in Britain occurring later.

So there are the main theories on April Fools’ Day and its origins, now let’s have a look at some of the best April Fools’ jokes:

  • 1860: People throughout London received invitations to the Tower of London to see the washing of the white lions. A large crowd gathered and were left disappointed when they found out the tower hadn’t kept lions for centuries.
  • 1957: A BBC broadcast about a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland due to a mild winter and the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil”. It was enough to trick viewers into how they could grow their own spaghetti trees.
  • 1962: In Sweden in 1962 there was only one television channel and it was in black and white. Technical expert Kjell Stensson with the help of researchers was going to show how people could view their black and white tv in full colour. It was by putting a pair of tights over the screen which would bend the light in a certain way to show colour. Many today in Sweden remember their family with tights or stocking across the front of their tv screen, a joke that fooled thousands.
  • 1972: Newspaper headlines around the world announced the dead body of the Loch Ness Monster had been discovered. The prank was actually set up by a Yorkshire zoo, as the zoo’s education officer had placed the body of a previously deceased bull elephant seal.
  • 2007: Images of an 8-inch mummified fairy like creature were posted on website Lebanon Circle Magik Co. They explained that the creature was found by a man whilst walking his dog, after hundreds of emails the sites owner confessed it was a hoax. The owner Dan Baines had used his skills as a prop maker to create the fairy, he later reported that he still receives emails from people believing the fairy was definitely not a hoax and was real.
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