April Fools’ Day, celebrated on the first day of April each year, is a strange holiday. It’s not one of the major holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving. You may even forget that it’s April Fools’ Day until the prank is played on you. Over the last decade, you may have seen it in the news more, as major outlets use it as a chance to try out their comedy chops to varying success. But where did this holiday begin? Why do we set aside one day to prank each other? The origins are tantalizingly murky.
This is perhaps the least shocking fact found in this entire article, but the roots of April Fools’ Day can arguably be traced back to Ancient Rome, like almost every other holiday we have. The Roman festival of Hilaria was part of a series of festivals in honor of Magna Mater or Cybele, the great mother goddess.
The roots of April Fools’ Day can arguably be traced back to Ancient Rome.
Traditionally held on March 25, though it actually fell on the vernal equinox (the first day of the year where the day was longer than the night), Hilaria was a celebration of life and rejoicing after the rebirth of Attis, the lover of Cybele. The festival was celebrated with games, parties, and most importantly, masquerades where you could imitate and mock anyone. It’s believed by some that the similarities between Hilaria and April Fools’ Day aren’t a coincidence, and the Roman festival influenced our modern holiday. Without direct evidence, it’s impossible to say for certain, but it’s not unreasonable to think there’s at least some connection between the two, if not a direct ancestry.
Possibly the oldest and most consistently recorded April Fools’ Day tradition comes to us from France. This is due to the tradition of poisson d’avril or fish of April. On April Fools’ Day, French children will stick paper fish on the backs of friends and parents as a prank. This may seem odd, but the earliest mentions of poisson d’avril can be traced back to a 1508 poem linking April fish to fools. The reason for this link is the belief that April fish are more gullible than at other times of the year, maybe because they’re hungrier after a long winter or just more plentiful. Thus, if you’re more susceptible to pranks, you are a poisson d’avril.
The origins of April Fools’ can also be traced back to the standardization of the calendar in France. The original start to the year differed depending on where in France you lived. This changed with the Edict of Roussillon in 1564, which standardized January 1 as the beginning of the year. People who still celebrated the new year on the original date, generally around April 1, were considered fools, thus April fools. The fish enters again here with the old tradition of gift giving during Lent. While Christians weren’t allowed to eat meat, they could eat fish. A popular joke was to give the April fool a fake fish to trick them. Of course, these are also theorized origins since they’re folk traditions written down after the fact.
So, April Fools’ Day had to have started somewhere. There has to be some definitive early evidence for the origins of the holiday, right? Luckily, there is! The first written evidence of an April Fools’ holiday can be found in a Flemish poem from 1561 about a lord who sends his servant on fool’s errands on April 1. The next reference we have is from an English book by John Aubrey in 1686 that references “Fooles Holy Day” observed on “the first of April.” The 1760 Poor Robin Almanac later tried, and failed, to explain the origins of “all Fool’s Day” on the first of April, lamenting, “But why the people call it so, Nor I nor they themselves do know.”
We have evidence that April Fools’ Day was known and celebrated in the New World before the birth of the United States.
From here, we have evidence that April Fools’ Day was known and celebrated in the New World before the birth of the United States. Personal accounts, such as the journal of one Anna Green Winslow of Boston recounted in 1771 that April 1 was a day her father played tricks on her mother. It was already popular shortly after the Revolution, shown by a 1796 handbill from Middletown, Connecticut, requesting 17 “Fools’ coats and caps” on April 1.
Today, April Fools’ Day is celebrated around the world, taking on local customs and beliefs as it goes. In Scotland, it’s a two-day event called Gowkie Day, while in England and Ireland, the pranking stops sharply at noon. In Sweden, instead of shouting “April Fools,” you yell “April, April, din dumma sill, jag kan lura dig vart jag vill!” Translation: “April, April, you stupid herring, I can trick you whenever I want!” A bit of a mouthful that only rubs in your prank even more.
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Maybe it’s ironic that a holiday about pranks has so many possible explanations? For a holiday that is all about deception and trickery, there couldn’t be a better origin than one shrouded in smoke and mirrors.
The Library of Congress — April Fools: The Roots of an International Tradition