It’s April Fools’ Day. No pranks here, but an attempt to determine why we stage hoaxes and play practical jokes on 1 April. It appears that nobody knows the exact meaning of the day although several historians have put forward suggestions.
It has been celebrated for centuries by different cultures and by embracing it, the media has ensured the unofficial holiday’s long life.
The earliest concrete records are from France and Holland in the 1500s and, because of this, people believe it must have been a northern European tradition that spread to Britain.
It is known as April Fish Day in some areas of Europe, believed to be because there are a lot of fish in streams and rivers around 1 April, and they are easy to catch – foolish fish!
In France, it is a common trick to attach a paper fish on somebody’s back on April Fools’ Day and give chocolate fish as gifts.
April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century, some arguing that a story told by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century – where a fox plays a prank on a rooster (who is almost eaten because of it) – is the first reference to pranks taking place on this day.
Chaucer doesn’t refer to 1 April though. In the poem, he says 32 “syn March began,” translated as “32 days since March began” which would be today.
On a wider scale, some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one. In the Julian calendar the new year began with the spring equinox on 1 April.
People who were slow to get the news, or failed to recognise that the start of the new year had moved to 1 January, and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through 1 April, became the butt of jokes and hoaxes and were called April fools. These pranks included having the so-said paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolise a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.
Historians have also linked April Fools’ Day to festivals such as Hilaria (Latin for joyful), which was celebrated in ancient Rome at the end of March by followers of the cult of Cybele. It involved people dressing up in disguises and mocking fellow citizens, and even magistrates, and was said to be inspired by the Egyptian legend of Isis, Osiris and Seth.
There’s also speculation that April Fools’ 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.