By P. Humbargar
In many countries, the first day of April is known as April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day, and is a day marked by people playing practical jokes and hoaxes on one another. With the general silliness and merriment associated with April Fools’ Day, it is an occasion especially enjoyed by children.
The exact origins of April Fools’ Day are a mystery, though several theories have been put forth.
One of the most popular theories involves a calendar change, which took place in Europe, during the late 1500s. At this time, the old Julian calendar, which marked the beginning of the new year on March 25 (with celebrations often lasting until April 1), was replaced with the Gregorian calendar, which changed the start of the new year to January 1. There were certain localities in France where people did not recognize the change, and the old date continued to be celebrated as the start of the new year. These people were often made fun of in various ways by those who accepted the change, and the practice may have spread throughout Europe, with April 1 eventually evolving into a general day of merrymaking and tom-foolery.
The first recorded instance associating April 1 with foolishness and trickery appears to be a tale written by Chaucer in 1392, when the rooster, Chanticleer, is tricked by a fox on this day. (The date, though, is disputed by scholars.)
Additionally, this time of year, associated with the vernal equinox (when day and night are of equal length) and the changing of the seasons, has for millennia been a time of celebration and rejoicing in many cultures throughout the world.
The ancient Romans celebrated the feast of Hilaria on March 25, with masquerades and frivolity. A similar Hindu festival, Holi, observed around this time, also dates back to antiquity.
Perhaps what is commonly known as “spring fever” is as good an explanation as any for the origin of April Fools’ Day—the change from winter to spring just naturally makes people feel lighthearted!
One of the oldest April Fools’ Day traditions takes place in parts of Italy, France, and Belgium. For generations, children in these countries tacked paper fishes on each other’s backs as a trick, and then shouted, “April fish!”
In most countries, children and adults play a wide variety of pranks, send the gullible on fools’ errands (i.e., looking for things that do not exist), and try to get people to believe ridiculous things. It is surprising how many people get fooled!
One of the funniest hoaxes took place on April 1, 1957, when the BBC reported a bumper “spaghetti harvest” in Switzerland, complete with staged video footage, showing peasants harvesting pasta from tall trees. Many people were duped into believing the report, and the network received scores of calls from people wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti!
Another well known prank took place in 1996, when Taco Bell ran a full page ad in the New York Times, saying that it had bought the famous Liberty Bell and would rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. A large number of people were taken in by the prank, with most feeling quite upset that this national historical treasure had been sold!
After what has been an exceptionally long and cold winter for many of us, April Fools’ Day is a merry way to welcome the arrival of spring. If you and the little ones in your life have played any funny tricks, please share them with us here!
Photo: Stuart Miles