How did April Fool’s Day Become a Thing?

Introduction

The Tradition Behind April Fools’ Day is characterized by the playing of practical jokes, pranks, and hoaxes. It is common practice for pranksters to reveal their joke to their target by shouting “April Fools’!” in a loud and boastful tone. This tradition has been followed for hundreds of years, but we will discuss that further in a later section.

There is no doubt that one of the more notorious “holidays” in the Western world is April Fool’s day on April 1st. Pranks on parents are played by children, on coworkers by coworkers, students on teachers and yes, even on readers of national news publications by national news outlets.

Even the corporate world has joined in with such well known pranks as Velveeta entering the skincare industry and Green Giant releasing cauliflower-flavored Peeps right before Easter.  The Korean royal family participates as well. On April 1, they are permitted to speak lies and jokes.

Where did the tradition of playing practical jokes on others on April 1 start, and how did it spread around the world?

Historical Timeline on the Origin of April Fools

1392 – First documented mention of April Fools in Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale

1572 – April Fools was traced back to the Dutch victory during the Capture of Brielle

1582 – Originated in France when the transition was made from Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar

1686 – John Aubrey made the first reference of the tradition in Britain

1769 – London authorities published that the April Fools may be traced back to Noah and the flood

18th century – April Fools’ Day became popular throughout the entirety of Britain and even become a 2-day celebration in Scotland

Origin of April Fools

Origin of April Fools

How April fools became a common tradition and how it started on April 1st is definitely not clear.  There are many theories, ideas and historical references that give some clues.

The first documented mention to April Fools’ Day was discovered in Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in 1392. People have suggested that the line “since March began thirty days and two” alludes to the 1st of April, and is therefore the earliest allusion to tricking people on that date. Many academics, however, believe that this was a clerical error in the line of the tale and that it actually refers to 32 days after the end of March or May 2nd. Some have stated that the scribal blunder is proof that the scribe was familiar with the tradition of April Fools’ Day pranks, although there is no evidence to support this claim. [3]

A poem composed by Eduard De Dene in 1561 in Flemish bears a reference to April Fool’s Day. In the poem, a nobleman abuses his position by making his servant run errands that accomplish nothing. The fact that it is April 1 makes it obvious to the servant that he is being dispatched on “fool’s errands.”

Historians are divided on the origin of April Fools, although some believe that April Fool’s Day originated in France in 1582, when the country made the transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, in response to a mandate issued by the Council of Trent in 1563. In both the Hindu calendar and the Julian calendar, the new year started on or around April 1st, which corresponds to the vernal equinox.

In his book Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, written in 1686, antiquarian John Aubrey (1626-1697) made the first known mention of April Fools’ Day in English. He referred to the holiday as “Fooles Holy Day,” and he explained: “We observe it on the first of April. Therefore, it is preserved throughout the entirety of Germany.” The Poor Robin’s Almanac, which was published in 1760, contained some of the earliest English hypotheses regarding the origin of the festival.

Some have even held the opinion that the origins of April Fools’ Day may trace back to the flood in the book of Genesis, despite the fact that no biblical scholar or historian is known to have mentioned a tie between the two. The following was published in the London Public Advertiser on March 13, 1769:

The error of Noah in sending the dove out of the ark before the water had abated, on the first day of April, and to perpetuate the memory of this deliverance it was thought proper, whoever forgot such a remarkable circumstance, to punish them by sending them on a sleeveless mission, much like the one the patriarch sent the bird on, which ultimately failed to achieve its goal”.

During the 18th century, April Fools’ Day became popular throughout the entirety of Britain. This tradition in Scotland has grown into a two-day festival, with the first day dedicated to “hunting the gowk,” in which participants are sent on fictitious errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool), and then continuing with “Tailie Day,” in which pranks were played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on people’s backs. [2]

The Roman tradition of Hilaria, which was a spring festival conducted around the 25th of March in commemoration of the “first day of the year longer than the night,” is a possible forerunner to the modern-day celebration of April Fool’s Day. Activities such as sports, processions, and masquerades were part of the celebrations. During these events, commoners dressed up in disguise may impersonate nobles for malicious purposes. [1]

Due to the fact that the earliest written mentions of the festival didn’t exist until several hundred years later, it is difficult to determine whether the similarities between this ancient celebration and modern April Fools’ Day are genuine or the result of coincidence.

Interesting Facts

April Fool’s Day Traditions

An entry from a diary kept by Anna Green Winslow in Boston in 1771 demonstrates that the festival was celebrated in both Canada and New England at the same time period. Green makes sure to emphasize the date twice, and she brings up the concept of the “wild goose chase,” implying that her father had sent her mother on such a chase on April Fool’s Day in 1768. However, the prank may also consist of Green asking her mother to remember an event that never took place, which is another kind of “wild goose chase.”

Another excellent illustration of the celebration of April Fools’ Day in the United States during the 18th century can be found in a handbill from the year 1796 that requests the delivery of 17 fool’s coats and caps to Middletown, Connecticut, on April 1. By the nineteenth century, the celebration had gained such breadth and popularity that allusions to it could be found often in newspapers.

By the late nineteenth century, April Fools’ Day pranks had developed into increasingly intricate forms, and by that time, there were three common artistic representations of April Fools’ pranks. The initial illustration depicted a brick hidden beneath a hat that was placed on a sidewalk. The implication was that eventually someone would give in to the temptation to kick the hat, causing him to stub his toe on the brick.

The second method consisted of putting an item that was supposed to be lost but was actually valued, like a wallet or money, in plain view and tying a thread around it. The other end of the line was held by a prankster who was hiding, and whenever a bystander attempted to take the item, the prankster would tug the string and take the item away from them. The third symbol was a coin with smoke coming from it, which represented a coin that had been heated up with fire or a cigar and then left in a location where someone may pick it up and get burned by it.

There are numerous inventive depictions of these practical jokes in the Prints and Photographs collection in the Library of Congress. This includes political cartoons and magazine illustrations. The images, which appeared on the front cover of Puck Magazine on April 3, 1895, illustrate practical jokes regarding a number of political hazards put up for Uncle Sam. [4]

Folk songs also began to include references to April Fool’s Day around the same time. An Irishman is pitted against his English neighbors in a war of April Fools’ Day jokes in a ballad that is variously called as “Campbell the Drover,” ” Three English Rovers,” or “The First Day of April.” Pat Campbell “pays it forward” by deceiving the landlord and escapes the tavern after the Englishmen take him there and leave him to pay the bill. By the 1920s, the ballad was already well-known in Ireland and was being referred to as a “old come-all-ye.” 1938 was the year when Alan Lomax visited John Green on Beaver Island, Michigan, to record his version of the song.

Pranks on teachers are a popular activity during the April Fools’ Day holiday in many countries, especially the United States. This is especially true of elementary and middle school students. Pranks that involved locking the instructor outside the school were a favorite. In an American folklore, Dr. Samuel Lathan described his own school days in a 1938 interview: “The first day of April was dreaded by the vast majority of rural school teachers. Students would crowd the classroom, preventing instructors from leaving. The instructor who did not adhere to the adage that it is preferable to err on the side of caution rather than boldness generally suffered the most.” [6]

Another tale on how April Fool’s was celebrated in the United States was included in The American Folklife Center for Applied Linguistics collection.  An interview conducted in 1968 with a student in Washington, D.C demonstrated that the practice of trying to trick teacher on the 1st April has persisted for more than a century. The student shared how they affixed tacks on a piece of tape, and that an instructor sat on them. The instructor responded to the prank that she would give the entire class a failing grade. However, she discovered who was responsible for the prank and it ended up with the prankster being expelled from the school for joining the celebration of April Fools.

On April 1, 1905 a German newspaper joined the celebration by reporting that criminals had excavated a tunnel underneath the United States Treasury and stolen $268 million in silver and gold. This was based on a story that was originally published in Germany. [5]  One of the more well-known practical jokes took place in 1957, when the BBC broadcast a program in which Swiss harvesters were shown pulling spaghetti from trees and bushes. The segment was accompanied by the claim that the region had “an especially heavy spaghetti crop” that year.

In 1976, BBC stated that the earth’s gravity would be lessened and anyone who jumped would float. The BBC’s objective to trick people could have been achieved if people hadn’t remembered that the date it was proclaimed was April 1 and comprehended that the earth’s gravity can never be reduced.

National Public Radio has also joined in on the action. A hoax tale was shown on the show Talk of the Nation in 1992. According to the narrative, Richard Nixon, who was portrayed on the show by Rich Little, had stated that he was running for president again with the slogan ” Not only did I not do anything wrong, but I also won’t do it again.

Conclusion

April Fools’ Day is still celebrated widely in the modern era, remain vigilant at all times, both offline and online when its April 1st. No one knows the precise origin of the custom, but many people today appreciate this lighthearted day and are happy to keep it alive.

References:

  1. Brandon Spektor (April 1, 2022), April Fools’ Day: How Did It Start, and Why Is It April 1? Retrieved September 6, 2022 from https://www.rd.com/article/origin-of-april-fools-day/
  2. History.com editors ( March 23, 2022), April Fool’s Day. Retrieved  September 6, 2022 from https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/april-fools-day.
  3. Geoffrey Chaucer, John H. Fisher, and Mark Allen, The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer, 3rd ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), 306[3186-3190].Retrieved September 9, 2002 from https://doinghistoryinpublic.org/2017/04/04/whence-proceeds-the-custom-of-making-april-fools/
  4. Stephen Winick (March 28 2016), April Fools: The Roots of an International Tradition. Retrieved September 6, 2022 from  https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2016/03/april-fools
  5. Jeff Dean (April 1, 2022), April Fools’ Day might be the world’s longest-running joke. No one knows how it began. Retrieved September 6, 2022 from https://www.npr.org/2022/04/01/1089947257/april-fools-day-history
  6. Dixon, W.W & Lathan, Samuel B, (South Carolina, 1938), U.S. Work Projects Administration, Federal Writers’ Project: Folklore Project, Life Histories, 1936-39. Retrieved September 9, 2022 from https://www.loc.gov/item/wpalh002053/?loclr=blogflt