Although April Fool’s Day, also called All Fools’ Day, has been celebrated for several centuries by different cultures, its exact origins remain a mystery.
Some historians speculate that April Fool’s Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563.
People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.
These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.
Historians have also linked April Fool’s Day to festivals such as Hilaria, which was celebrated in ancient Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises.
There’s also speculation that April Fool’s Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather.
April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them.
Why is All Fool’s Day or April Fool’s Day on April 1?
There are several theories about the origin on the April Fool’s Day custom. One explanation focuses on the introduction of the Julian and the Gregorian calendar. From ancient times, people in some parts of Europe celebrated the New Year on or around the March Equinox. However, the new calendar systems defined January 1 as the first day of the year.
People who forgot about the change or observed the old rules for other reasons became victims of various jokes. For example, pranksters would discreetly stick paper fish to their backs. In France, the victims of this prank were called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish.
Another belief on the April Fool’s Day origin points to the biblical character Noah as the first “April Fool”. It is said that on April 1, he mistakenly sent the dove out to find dry land before the waters subsided.
A second story tells that the day commemorates when Jesus was sent from Pontius Pilate to Herod and back again. “Sending a man from Pilate to Herod”, is an old term for sending someone on a fool’s errand.
April Fool’s Day in History
Practical jokes and pranks date back to Ancient Roman times. Ancient Romans and Celts celebrated a festival of practical joking around the time of the March equinox.
The Origin of “Fool’s Errands”
According to Roman myth, the god Pluto abducted Proserpina to the underworld. Her mother Ceres only heard her daughter’s voice echo and searched for her in vain. The fruitless search is believed by some to have inspired the tradition of “fool’s errands”, practical jokes where people are asked to complete an impossible or imaginary task.
All Fool’s Day in British Folklore
British folklore links April Fool’s Day to the town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire. According to the legend, it was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the king placed his foot upon to become public property. So when Gotham’s citizens heard that King John planned to travel through their town, they refused him entry, not wishing to lose their main road. When the king heard this, he sent soldiers to the town. But when the soldiers arrived in Gotham, they found the town full of fools engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish. As a result, the king declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment.