April Fools Day Origins: Happy New Year?

April Fools’ Day, celebrated around the world on April 1st annually, has become a tradition for pranking your friends and playing jokes on them. However, where did it all start? What are the origins of this popular holiday?

The Most Commonly Held Origin Of April Fools’ Day

The origin that everyone learns about is based on the shift in the calendar in the 1582 from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian. Pope Gregory XIII ordered the new calendar to account for the impreciseness of the Julian calendar when it came to the extra 6 hours at the end of every year. The Julian calendar was built with the assumption that a year is precisely 365.25 days, when it’s actually 11 minutes shorter than that. The Gregorian calendar changed that by making years at the beginning of centuries only leap years if they were also divisible by 400. So while 2000 was a leap year, 2100 will not be.

The true origin of April Fools' Day is lost in history
Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian Calendar in 1758, creating the first April fools. [Image by rusty426/Shutterstock]

When people were on the Julian calendar, the New Year was celebrated on the first day of April, at the end of the March 25 Holy Week celebrating the Feast of Annunciation.When the Gregorian calendar was adopted, the first day of the year was shifted to January 1st. People who didn’t change their celebrations to coincide were considered backwards, or to be fools. A method of pranking these people would be to show up for a visit. Those visited would think that they were getting a New Year’s Day visit, only to be surprised as the visitors told them that no, it wasn’t New Year’s Day at all.

There are a few problems with this origin, however. Namely that while the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582, it didn’t reach England until 1752, but April Fools’ Day had been celebrated there since the beginning of the century at least.

More Ancient Origins

There are other theories about how the holiday came about, stretching back to the Roman Empire. The Roman celebrated the end of winter with a celebration termed Hilaria, which was celebrated near the March equinox on the first day where the day was longer than night. The full Hilaria Matris Deum festival lasted for a full week. Romans dressed in costume to welcome the spring, and in return, Mother Nature played tricks on them with the weather.

It can be easily seen then, when the Roman Catholic church adopted the Hilaria Matris Deum festival at the end of March to herald the New Year, how the two are closely related.

April Fools’ Day Around the World

This day of jest is celebrated around the world in various fashions. In England, pranks are fair game all morning, at least until midday. To them, it is bad luck to play April Fools’ pranks after noon.

Scotland used to celebrate a tradition called “hunting the Gowk,” where a person is handed a note and asked to deliver it to someone else. On the note is written a variation of the following:

“Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.”

When the person the original fool is sent to reads it, they will tell them that they can only help if they get someone else to come with. They then send the victim on their way with another note to the new person, who continues to run them around.

April Fools Day is celebrated annually on April 1st.
A tradition of pinning or taping a fool or fish to a victim's back is a popular way to celebrate April Fools Day [Image by nito/Shutterstock]

In France and other French countries, April 1st is the time for the poissons d’avril, or The April Fish. The game here is to attach a paper fish to a person’s back without them noticing.

Perhaps one of the most famous April Fools’ Day jokes was the famous spaghetti harvest in Ticino, Switzerland. In 1957, BBC’s respected news program, Panorama, announced that because the Swiss had managed to almost eliminate the spaghetti weevil, farmers were enjoying a bumper crop. This was accompanied by footage of Swiss people harvesting spaghetti from trees.

The BBC was inundated with calls from people who wanted to know how to harvest spaghetti. They were told to “plant a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

[Featured Image by gst/Shutterstock]