Mischief makers, tricksters, and comedians all look forward to April Fool’s Day, which has been called the most lighthearted day of the year. April Fool’s Day is celebrated in countries around the world, from Europe, to the Americas, to Asia. Of course, it looks a little different in each country. In France, for example, children celebrate April 1 by sticking images of fish onto each other’s backs; in the United Kingdom, all pranks have to be done in the morning and end by noon.
Newspapers, TV stations, and popular brands also get in on the April Fool’s Day fun by spreading lighthearted hoaxes to tease the general public. (You can see a round-up of some of the great 2019 hoaxes right here.) Historians say that April Fool’s Day celebrations date back hundreds of years — but they can’t seem to agree on the origins of the holiday, or how it came to be associated with jokes and hoaxes.
This year, April Fool’s Day falls on a Monday, which may lighten the day for those of us dealing with the back-to-work blues. Here’s what you need to know about the history and meaning of this much-loved day:
1. Some Say April Fool’s Day Dates Back to the 16th Century, When the European Calendar Changed
Historians aren’t sure what, exactly, the tradition of playing tricks on April 1 stems from. But some believe that it dates all the way back to the 16th century, when Europeans changed the calendar they were using. Up until 1582, Europeans folowed the Julian calendar, based on the ancient Roman calendar (its name comes from Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator). Europeans celebrated New Year’s Day at the beginning of Spring, on March 25. The date was connected to the Vernal Equinox, or the official beginning of spring, which normally falls on March 20 or 21.
But in 1582, Pope Gregory took a drastic step and unilaterally shifted Europeans from the old Julian calendar to a new calendar which has become known as the Gregorian calendar. The new calendar moved New Year’s Day to January 1, instead of March 25. Many historians believe that it took a lot of people a long time to catch on to the new calendar;; instead of celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1, they kept on celebrating the New Year’s in the spring. Over time, followers of the new, Gregorian calendar started making fun of the old fashioned style. Some people started pranking the traditionalists, especially around the time of year that the traditionalists were celebrating their new year. They started sending them on “fool’s errands” or telling them stories that just weren’t true. And over time, this evolved into our modern practice of telling jokes and tricking people on April 1.
2. Ancient Romans Dressed Up in Costumes to Celebrate a Festival Called ‘Hilaria’ at the End of March
The Ancient Romans celebrated a festival called “Hilaria” twice a year: on March 25, and on November 3. The festival marked the resurrection of two Roman cult figures: Osiris and Attis. (Romans also called personal celebrations “hilaria,” but over time.) During the “Hilaria” celebrations, Romans dressed up in costumes and the normal rules of society were relaxed. Ordinary people were allowed to imitate elected officials. People played games and watched spectacles; they also took part in parades following a statue of the goddess Cybele.
Hilaria celebrations could go on for days, so that a festival starting on March 25 could last until the beginning of April. Some historians believe that the March 25 Hilaria was the ancestor of today’s April 1 celebration. They point to the fact that Romans loved to masquerade and to poke fun at those in power during the Hilaria festival. Like April Fool’s Day, Hilaria was a day of lighthearted celebration, fun, and laughter.
Other cultures also have lighthearted festivals at the start of spring. Hindus celebrate Holi, a colorful, joyous celebration of love. Jews celebrate Purim, in which children dress up in costumes and make noise to commemorate the failure of a plot to murder their ancestors.
3. April Fool’s Day Celebrations Became Popular Across the UK in the 17th Century
By the 1700s, people across England and Scotland were celebrating April Fool’s Day, although they didn’t always call it by that name. In Scotland, where April Fool’s Day was very popular indeed, the festival was actually stretched over two days. The first day was known as “hunting the gowk,” gowk being another word for “cuckoo.” “Hunting the gowk” meant sending gullible people on pointless, usually long errands; the poor fools would be entrusted with messages that read “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” When they got to their destination, they’d be sent on another fool’s errand, carrying the very same message. This could go on, and on, and on.
The day after Hunting the Gowk was known as Tailie Day, or “Preen-Tail Day.” On Tailie Day, pranksters would attach paper tails to the rear ends of unsuspecting folk and then, of course, laugh at them. It’s easy to see how both “hunt the gowk” and “tailie day” could have evolved into our modern April Fool’s Day, with its practical jokes and tricks.
4. Some Historians Say April Fool’s Day Was First Mentioned by the English Poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in 1392
Some historians believe that the first mention of April Fool’s Day took place centuries ago, when the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a loosely-linked collection of stories, was written in the 14th century and completed in 1392. Literary scholars say that one of the tales in the book — the tale known as “the Nun’s Priest’s Tale” — actually describes April Fool’s Day. Of course, if that’s true, then it would mean that April Fool’s Day celebrations stretch further back in time than most historians had believed.
The “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is all about trickery: it tells the story of a fox and a rooster trying to fool each other. The story says that it is set thirty two days after the beginning of March, or, on April 1. (In Chaucer’s Middle English, the line reads, “Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two.”) If the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is really set on April 1, then that would mean that people were probably already celebrating that day as April Fool’s Day. But other literary scholars and historians have pointed out that later on in the same story, Chaucer says that the tale takes place under the “sign of Taurus,” which begins on April 20. The jury is still out on whether Chaucer was referring to April Fool’s Day, after all. But historians say that there’s no reference to April Fool’s Day celebrations in Europe during Chaucer’s time, which makes it unlikely that the poet was really referring to April Fool’s Day in his tale.
5. One in Five Americans Plans to Prank Their Spouse on April Fool’s Day
Surveys show that most Americans are planning to play at least one prank on April Fool’s Day; when asked, 64 percent said they were planning to trick someone on the day. One in five, or 20 percent of people said they’re planning to prank their spouse or significant other, and another 20 percent said they were planning to prank a friend. 15 percent of people said they were planning to prank their kids. But mothers can breathe a sigh of relief: only 9 percent of people are planning a prank on their mom.
There are three types of pranks that are most popular on April Fool’s Day. One of them is the “mind game prank,” which basically boils down to making people feel like they’re going crazy. A good example of a mind game prank would be gradually moving someone’s chair away from their desk. Done right, the chair gets moved so slowly, and by such imperceptible amounts, that the “victim” doesn’t notice until the chair is far from the desk. Another popular prank is the “scare tactic,” which would mean — for example — putting a rubber snake in a chair. And yet another popular prank is the “lying prank,” which, well, means telling a dramatic lie. Saying that you’re pregnant, or that you’re quitting your job to become a cheese farmer, would be an example of a lying prank.
It’s worth noting that a whopping 38 percent of Americans say that they don’t like April Fool’s Day — compared to just 44 percent who say they love it. It’s not clear whether that 38 percent are the same people who’ve been pranked recently.