Susan here on a blustery first day of April in the D.C. area where the air is thick with cherry blossoms—and today, pranks. The origins of the April Fools Day customs of jokes, pranks and hoaxes date far back and are fairly obscure. This informal holiday has been around since the Middle Ages if not longer and was often called All Fools Day. Way back, the Romans celebrated “Hilaria,” a festival of merriment on March 25, the feast day of Cybele, considered the mother of the gods, around the time of the vernal equinox.
Later, Catholicism soberly marked March 25 as the Feast of the Annunciation, and since religious feast days were often celebrated in octaves, or over eight days, that stretched out to the Kalends of April, or April 1, which was also, like Hilaria, celebrated with happy festivals. A mix of metaphors—springtime and religious and pagan holidays—and the calendar change in the 16th century put the focus of April 1st squarely on jokes and pranks. Today it’s often the more the merrier where pranks are concerned with the added tradition of calling out “April Fool’s!” when the ruse is revealed.
The first of April, some do say,
Is set apart for All Fools Day;
But why the people call it so,
Nor I nor they themselves do know
But on this day are people sent
On purpose for pure merriment.
— Poor Robin’s Almanack, 1760
In earlier cultures and with the earlier Julian calendar, the new year was most often celebrated around the arrival of spring and the vernal equinox—anywhere from February to late March, depending on the culture (and the climate!). This placed the first of April very near the turn of the year. When the Gregorian calendar was devised in the late 16th century, the date shift placed New Year’s Day on January 1st. One feast day celebrated generally in January, the Feast of Fools, included merriment, pranks, mocking and burlesquing bishops and popes may have morphed into April Fool’s Day with the change of the new year. Another theory championed by early historians claims that when the calendar months shifted, those who still celebrated the new year between March 25 and April 1st (remember that octave of observance days) were called fools for being late for the NEW new year. That strains belief a little, but it’s a good thought.
Some 18th and 19th century scholars gave April Fool’s Day a grim origin in the Passion of Christ, who was mocked and tormented and sent back and forth between judging authorities—Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod, Pilate again and so on. By the 17th century there are references to an already established tradition of sending unsuspecting prank victims on seemingly important but actually pointless errands—“sleeveless errands” they were called, with as much point to them as a shirt without sleeves in those days. The “Passion” theory, claimed some scholars in the rather blithe and convoluted style of Georgian and later historians, was related to “poisson,” or “fish” in French, fish being a Christ symbol. Indeed in France, April Fool’s is known as “Poisson d’Avril” or April Fish. If you happen to be in France on April 1st -– or if you are around French people or in a French class! – you could end up with a paper fish stuck to your back as someone’s chosen “poisson d’avril,” lucky you! It’s a silly little game that may in turn refer to the relative ease of catching mackerel in April—another springtime reference. Or it could go back, as those vintage historians suggested, to the Passion of Christ and even to the celebration around March 25 and the Feast of the Annunciation.
However it began, April Fool’s Day has been around a very long time and has become a fun casual holiday. I’ve been on both sides of some funny pranks and I’m sure you all have as well! When our three boys were little, we would do things like switch the contents of cereal boxes—Cheerios poured out bran flakes, Rice Krispies poured out dry oatmeal. A tame little start for the wee guys–who grew up to pull off some great stunts of their own. Other classic April Fools pranks among family and friends include wrapping someone’s office in aluminum foil from desk, chair and computer down to each pen and pencil (this takes a team and some time!) or, as happened to one of my kids in medical school, covering the floor of an office with hundreds of paper cups filled with yellow water. Another friend opened a door to find his office completely filled with balloons.
Some of the best April Fools jokes of all time are listed here, including such great pranks as the Swiss spaghetti farm—when the BBC on April 1, 1957 reported on the harvesting of spaghetti from trees in Switzerland. People called the station to find out how to get spaghetti plants for their own gardens. They clearly forgot what day it was!
In 2014 a great prank was arranged by King’s College Choir when they announced a change—the use of helium to prolong the beauty of boys’ voices. Watch the YouTube video here.
What are some of the best April Fools pranks you’ve experienced—or that you’ve oh so cleverly set up for others? We’d love to know! Have a great April Fools Day!
P.S. No April Fool's joke — my Lady Macbeth is available right now for $1.99 in ebook! This is for a short time only, so grab it soon! The book has hit #1 on a lot of lists lately, which is no prank either. :)
P.S.S. Thanks to graphicsfairy.com,wikipedia and youtube for images!