April Fools’ Day is an informal holiday celebrated every year on April 1. Popular since medieval times, the day is not a national holiday in any country, but it is widely recognized throughout European cultures and celebrated as a day when people play practical jokes and hoaxes on each other, called April fools. Hoax stories are also often found in the press and media on this day.
Precursors of April Fools’ Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, held March 25, and the Medieval Feast of Fools, held December 28, still a day on which pranks are played in Spanish-speaking countries.
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392), the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is set Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two. Modern scholars believe that there is a copying error in the extant manuscripts and that Chaucer actually wrote, Syn March was gon. Thus, the passage originally meant 32 days after April, i.e. 2 May, the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, which took place in 1381. Readers apparently misunderstood this line to mean “March 32”, i.e. April 1. In Chaucer’s tale, the vain cock Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox.
In 1508, French poet Eloy d’Amerval referred to a poisson d’avril (April fool, literally “April fish”), a possible reference to the holiday. In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on April 1. In 1686, John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day”, the first British reference. On April 1, 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to “see the Lions washed”.
In the Middle Ages, up until the late 18th century, New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation) in most European towns. In some areas of France, New Year’s was a week-long holiday ending on April 1. Many writers suggest that April Fools originated because those who celebrated on January 1 made fun of those who celebrated on other dates. The use of January 1 as New Year’s Day was common in France by the mid-16th century, and this date was adopted officially in 1564 by the Edict of Roussillon.
According to Yahoo News, there is a conversation surrounding whether the apostrophe should be placed between the l and the s (as in “April Fool’s Day”), or after the s (as in “April Fools’ Day”). It argues that the latter is the common consensus, though adds that there are arguments either way.
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, excluding Australia, the joking ceased at midday. A person playing a joke after midday is the “April fool” themselves.
In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is traditionally called Hunt-the-Gowk Day (“gowk” is Scots for a cuckoo or a foolish person; Là na Gocaireachd ‘gowking day’ or Là Ruith na Cuthaige ‘the day of running the cuckoo’ in Gaelic), although this name has fallen into disuse. The traditional prank is to ask someone to deliver a sealed message requesting 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 person with an identical message, with the same result.
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”.
In Iran, jokes are played on the 13th day of the Persian new year (Nowruz), which falls on April 1 or April 2. This day, celebrated as far back as 536 BC, is called Sizdah Bedar and is the oldest prank-tradition in the world still alive today; this fact has led many to believe that April Fools’ Day has its origins in this tradition.
In Poland, prima aprilis (“1 April” in Latin) is a day full of jokes; various hoaxes are prepared by people, media (which sometimes cooperate to make the “information” more credible) and even public institutions. Serious activities are usually avoided. This conviction is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31.
Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians celebrate April Fools’ Day (aprilsnar in Danish). Most Scandinavian 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” (poisson d’avril in French 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 prominently on many late 19th- to early 20th-century French April Fools’ Day postcards.
April Fools’ Day pranks
In 1957, the BBC pulled a prank, known as the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest prank, where they broadcast a fake film of Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti. The BBC were later flooded with requests to purchase a spaghetti plant, forcing them to declare the film a prank on the news the next day.
Other prank days in the world
December 28, the equivalent day in Spain and Ibero-America, is also the Christian day of celebration of the “Day of the Holy Innocents”. The Christian celebration is a holiday in its own right, a religious one, but the tradition of pranks is not, though the latter is observed yearly. After somebody plays a joke or a prank on somebody else, the joker usually cries out, in some regions of Ibero-America: Inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar (“You innocent little dove that let yourself be fooled”). In Mexico, the phrase is ¡Inocente para siempre! which means “Innocent forever!”. In Argentina, the prankster says ¡Que la inocencia te valga!, which roughly translates as a piece of advice on not to be as gullible as the victim of the prank. In Spain, it is common to say just ¡Inocente! (which in Spanish can mean “Innocent!”, but also “Gullible!”). Nevertheless, on the Spanish island of Minorca, Dia d’enganyar (“Fooling day”) is celebrated on April 1 because Menorca was a British possession during part of the 18th century.
In books and film
Bryce Courtenay wrote a novel called April Fool’s Day, first published in 1993. In some editions the title is April Fool’s Day: a modern tragedy; in others, it is April Fool’s Day: a modern love story.
Films, telemovies and television episodes have used April Fool’s Day as their title.
The holiday has received mixed reception from critics. This is epitomised in the great reception to the 1957 BBC prank. According to BBC News, “Newspapers were split over whether this was a great joke or a terrible hoax on the public”.
Ashley Macha of Health News and Views argued that April Fools can be good for one’s health because it encourages “jokes, hoaxes…pranks, [and] belly laughs”, and then explained all the benifits of laughter including stress relief and reducing strain on the heart. It also noted that the themed content makes sense within a larger context: “April 1st also marks the start of National Humor Month, a month-long celebration of laughter and happiness”. There are many “best of” April Fools day lists that are compiled in order to showcase the best examples of how the holiday is celebrated. Various April Fools campaigns have been praised for their innovation, creativity, writing, and general effort – especially those from the major corporations such as Google and Apple.
In a Yahoo News article entitled Is April Fools’ Day the Worst Holiday?, Jen Doll and Rebecca Greenfield answered: “In a word, yes. April Fools’ Day is hell”, and went on to describe the holiday as “creepy and manipulative”. They argued that on this day we’re “sort of rude and ‘gotcha!’ and even a little bit nasty”, and was based around schadenfreude and deceit as opposed to being “kind, loving, [and] generous”. When people post genuine news on April Fools day, it can often get misinterpreted as a joke. Similarly, sometimes jokes are taken very seriously. In both cases there are adverse affects – often confusion and misinformation, but in some cases worse. In an article listing the Good, Bad, and Ugly hoaxes of 2008, The Museum of Hoaxes listed a Ugly story in which “An Australian woman called emergency services to tell them her baby had fallen off the bed and stopped breathing. When the ambulances arrived, there was no sick baby. It was her idea of a hilarious April Fool”.