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April Fools’ Day, explained earnestly

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It’s April Fools’ Day, so you’re probably devoting more brainpower than you’d care to admit to potential hoaxes that your friends and co-workers – heck, even your favorite news organizations – might pull on you.

But why April 1, of all days? How did we come to associate the first day of the fourth month of the year with an opportunity to take advantage of the more gullible among us? The short answer is nobody really knows.

The longer answer: The first clear and widespread mentions of April Fools’ Day occurred in the 18th century. But even then, people wondered about its origins.

"Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?" one correspondent wrote in the British Apollo magazine in 1708.

By that point, the custom was already well-established across parts of Europe, enough that people there regarded its origins as long-lost history. No one is sure how, exactly, a tradition so potent could have sprung up without more frequent mentions in the written record in the centuries preceding.

But it's clear that playing tricks and pulling pranks in the spring has a much richer history than you might expect for such a silly holiday.

Even Chaucer might have given April Fools' Day a shoutout

Geoffrey Chaucer’s "Nun’s Priest’s Tale," a 1392 work, depicts a rooster named Chauntecleer being fooled by, and in turn fooling, a fox. This happens "Syn March bigan, thritty dayes and two," which seems to be a clear reference to the 32nd day after the beginning of March, or April 1.

But scholars have thrown hot water on this theory: Most think "bigan" is a scribal error, and Chaucer actually meant 32 days after March ends, or May 2, which marked the then-recent anniversary of King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia.

The scribal error might suggest that even then, scribes associated pranks with April 1 – but this doesn’t qualify as hard evidence. The first definite reference to April Fools’ Day comes from a 1561 Flemish poem by Eduard de Dene, in which a nobleman sends his servant on annoying, fruitless errands. (Fools’ errands!) At the end of each stanza, the servant frets that what he is being asked to do is nothing more than an April 1 joke.

So by the 16th century, there was some widespread recognition of the custom to play practical jokes on the first day of April. This, taken together with a reference to "poisson d’Avril," a French April Fools' custom, in a poem published in 1508, leads scholars to date the origins of the holiday to northern continental Europe – after which it probably spread to Britain.

Over the next century, April Fools’ Day jokes started to become ubiquitous.

In the early 1600s, for example, the legend about the Duke of Lorraine’s escape from prison became the stuff of folklore. On April 1, 1632, it is said that the duke and his wife escaped a prison in Nantes simply by walking out the front gate dressed as peasants. Someone noticed them and told the guards, but the guards believed it to be an April Fools' trick, allowing the couple to escape. (The duke and duchess definitely did escape in April 1634; it’s harder to confirm whether they escaped on April 1.)

By the close of the century in England, it had become a popular prank to send gullible victims to the Tower of London to see the washing of the lions – a ceremony that certainly didn’t exist. The prank's first mentioned appeared in a British newspaper on April 2, 1698, where an article on the front page read, "Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed." Examples of this particular hoax continued at least through the mid-1800s.

April Fools’ Day has all the hallmarks of a "renewal" festival

But the sources of April Fools' Day are probably even older.

Nearly every culture has some kind of festival to mark the coming of spring. These occasions, which anthropologists have dubbed "renewal festivals," typically involve some sort of organized mayhem. People play pranks on friends, wear disguises, or somehow reverse the social order: Servants give orders to masters, or children challenge their parents' authority.

April Fools’ Day fits the pattern. For one day in spring, behaviors that are normally considered socially unacceptable – pranks, deception, even heartlessness – become temporarily socially acceptable, made lighter by the prospect of laughter.

One of the oldest versions sounds a lot like April Fool's Day: the Roman festival of "Hilaria." Across the Roman Empire, the festival was celebrated on March 25, to commemorate the resurrection of the Roman god Attis. The festival, which coincided with the spring equinox, invited Romans to rejoice; games, pranks, and masquerades were common.

Other scholars have also associated the holiday with the Hindu festival of Holi and the medieval Feast of Fools. The Feast of Fools was celebrated in the same parts of Europe where the first traces of April Fools' can be found. For centuries in Europe, celebrants elected a "lord of misrule" and parodied church customs, often in extremely blasphemous ways. The church attempted to stamp out the ritual, but it endured through about the 16th century.

All of this suggests that playing essentially harmless pranks in the spring has a long, cross-cultural history. But it doesn't explain how April Fools' itself came to be.

Did April Fools' Day come from changes to the calendar?

France and England both changed their calendars in the past 500 years, and both countries shifted New Year's Day from early spring to January. That's led to a theories that April Fools' Day started as a reaction to the shift.

France changed its calendar in 1564, when King Charles IX shifted the date marking the start of the new year to January 1 from March 25. The spring celebration used to continue through April 1, and, the legend goes, many French people resisted the change or simply forgot about it, continuing to party and exchange gifts through April 1.

Mischief makers poked fun at these French conservatives and their steadfast attachment to the old tradition by sending them silly gifts and invitations to nonexistent parties. They would also stick paper fish to their backs, popularizing the French term for a person who gets duped on April Fools’ Day: "poisson d’Avril," or "April fish."

The idea seems to be a reference to the fact that fish are most plentiful and hungry during the spring. An "April fish" was easier to catch, i.e., more gullible, than a fish at any other time of the year.

In Britain, meanwhile, the legal switch from March 25 until January 1 wasn't made until almost two centuries later than the rest of Europe. That has led other people to point to Britain, not France, as the country whose calendrical flub produced a day of tomfoolery.

As evidence, the first mention of the calendar change theory in the written record ascribes its origins to England, not France. In 1766, a correspondent wrote to the Gentleman’s Magazine:

The strange custom prevalent throughout this kingdom, of people making fools of one another upon the first of April, arose from the year formerly beginning, as to some purpose, and in some respects, on the twenty-fifth of March, which was supposed to be the incarnation of our Lord; it being customary with the Romans, as well as with us, to hold a festival, attended by an octave, at the commencement of the new year -- which festival lasted for eight days, whereof the first and last were the principal; therefore the first of April is the octave of the twenty-fifth of March, and, consequently, the close or ending of the feast, which was both the festival of the Annunciation and the beginning of the new year.

But the timing for this theory, too, is a little off. Britain switched the start of its calendar in 1752. By then, April Fools’ Day was already an established tradition both in England and in the rest of Europe, and people were already wondering why people played tricks on each other in the spring.

Even the French theory has some problems. As far back as 1507, records show that at least some French towns exchanged gifts for the new year on January 1, following the Roman tradition. If that’s true, the legal transition away from marking the new year on Easter would have lasted more than half a century, leaving ample time for France’s culture to shift, too.

The timing of the French calendar switch fits the facts of April Fools’ Day so loosely, in fact, that many scholars now regard it as an example of "metafolklore" — when a story springs up to explain the origins of a folk holiday.

Today, April Fools' has evolved into pranks that go viral

Whether tricking people to go watch imaginary lions get imaginary baths in the 1800s or sending people fake invitations to nonexistent parties in France in the 1500s, April Fools' pranks have maintained their silliness.

In France, people still celebrate "poisson d'Avril" on April Fools' Day; kids try to tape paper fish on adults' backs without them noticing.

The holiday has tricked many around the world – some cases more elaborate than others, and some from voices of greater authority:

  • On April 1, 1905, a newspaper in Berlin broke the news that the US Treasury had been robbed of $268 million. The paper even reported specifically how the whole heist unfolded.
  • On April 1, 1957, the BBC aired a spoof documentary about spaghetti crops in Switzerland, during which a distinguished broadcaster narrated a story about a family that harvested spaghetti from trees – it even had footage of women picking strands of spaghetti off a tree and laying them in the sun to dry.
  • On April 1, 1975, an Australian TV station said the nation down under would be switching to a metric time system, where seconds became millidays, minutes became centidays, and hours became decidays.
  • On April 1, 1987, Los Angeles DJ Steve Morris, from the KRTH-FM station, said all the freeways in LA and Orange County would close for major repairs for several days. His show received hundreds of angry calls that day.
  • And then there is the great NPR prank of April 1, 2014, in which the media outlet promoted a story on Facebook headlined, "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?" which sparked outrage in the post's comments section. But had the commenters actually read the article, they would have seen all it said was, "Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools' Day!"

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