What are the origins of April Fools' Day?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one knows why we mark this day with elaborate pranks

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Like many unofficial “holidays”, the origin of April Fools' Day is a mystery.

Every year on April 1, people pull pranks on friends and loved ones, often before midday (if you play a prank after that time, then you’re the fool). The tradition has been embraced all over the world and has increasingly become part of company marketing campaigns.

In 2015, The National's April Fools' “news story” about a government proposal to ban gas-guzzling 4x4s in the UAE even sparked a debate among the public about the merits of the plan.

Dubai airline Emirates issues elaborate April Fools' Day “announcements” every year. Last year, news that it was launching a cruise liner set to sail on April 1, 2024, grabbed headlines around the world.

But does anyone actually know why they’re doing it? The short answer is: no. Here are a few of the legends that surround the day’s beginnings.

A changing calendar

The story goes that when France changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar with the 1564 Edict of Roussillon, thus moving the start of a new year from April to January 1, some people were slow to catch on.

Those who were still celebrating the spring equinox or Easter as the beginning of a fresh year were referred to as “April fools” or “poisson d’avril”, which means “fish of April”. To that end, one of the pranks played on these “fools” was to stick paper fish on their backs – or so the story goes.

Chaucer made it up

A portrait of Chaucer from the Welsh Portrait Collection. Photo: National Library of Wales
A portrait of Chaucer from the Welsh Portrait Collection. Photo: National Library of Wales

Another theory links back to Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th-century collection of The Canterbury Tales.

In the Nun's Priest Tale, the English poet and author tells the tale of foolish trickery between a fox and a rooster, and midway through the story he pauses to refer to the date.

He says the events happened on “32 March” or “Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two”, which was believed to mean April 1.

Most scholars have come to the conclusion, however, that this is a copy error and he actually wrote “Syn March was gon” and that the passage meant 32 days after March, and the tale is actually set on May 3.

Confusing, yes, but if he was referring to April Fool's Day this would definitely be the first mention of it on record.

Past examples of hilarity

Before the emergence of April Fools Day, there were festivals such as Hilaria, which is the Latin for “joyful”. This springtime celebration was marked in ancient Rome towards the end of March to honour Cybele, an Anatolian mother goddess.

One of the traditions of these festivities saw people dress up in disguise and make fun of others.

Does it matter where it comes from?

Wherever the tradition stems from, the idea spread throughout Britain in the 18th century, which is where it transformed into what we know it as today.

Over the years, countless elaborate jokes have been played at peoples' expense. One of the most famous examples occurred in 1957, when the BBC news show Panorama announced that the dreaded spaghetti weevil had virtually been eradicated and Swiss farmers were harvesting a huge amount of spaghetti crop. It showed accompanying footage of peasants pulling strands of spaghetti from trees.

People called in, asking how they could grow their own spaghetti tree, to which the BBC replied “placed a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”. Apparently even the BBC's director-general later admitted he checked an encyclopaedia to find out if that's how the pasta actually grew.