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How Did April 1 Become “April Fools’ Day”?

How did April Fools' Day get started as a day for practical jokes? We share some of the theories and pranks from around the world.

No matter where you live in the world, chances are you’re familiar with the tradition of playing practical jokes on friends and family on April 1. But have you ever wondered how April Fools’ Day got started?

How Did April Fools’ Day Get Started?

April Fool's Day - Joke

Legends have it that April Fools’ Day began in France in 1564. Prior to 1564, April 1st used to be celebrated as New Year’s Day. Those who insisted on celebrating the “old” New Year’s became known as April fools and it became common to play jokes on one another.

Some also say that it has to do with Mother Nature fooling us. Sometimes, a late March/early April storm brings snow, fooling us, since the calendar says it is spring.

The truth is, no one really knows for certain what the origin of April Fools’ Day is, though it’s been celebrated in many varied cultures for hundreds — maybe even thousands — of years.

One popular story posits that the tradition began during the 16th Century after Pope Gregory XIII decreed the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Prior to that time, the first day of April marked the start of the New Year, but the new calendar moved the start of the year to January. According to this particular origin story, an “April fool” was someone who could be tricked into receiving visitors on April 1 for a “New Year” celebration.

But other evidence seems to indicate that April Fools’ Day existed, in some form or other, long before Pope Gregory’s day. Roughly 200 years before the calendar changed, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer seemed to reference April Fools’ Day in his Canterbury Tales, when the characters of a rooster and a fox each trick one another. Chaucer notes that the date of the events described is March 32 (also known as April 1).

One of the oldest known prank traditions at this time of year is Sizdah Bedar, the Persian New Year. Residents of the area that became modern-day Iran have played jokes on one another during this holiday — which always falls on either April 1 or 2 — since at least 536 B.C. This tradition is still practiced today.

Whatever the origin of April Fools’ Day, different traditions have developed in different countries over the years. Here are just a few:

April Fools’ Day Pranks Around The World

  • In some countries, all April Fools’ Day pranks must be completed by noon. Anyone playing a joke after that deadline is called an “April Fool.” In North America, this tradition is generally followed in Canada, but not in the United States.
  • In Italy, France, and French-speaking areas of Canada, one popular tradition is to attempt to stick a paper fish on someone’s back without their noticing. This practice is known as poisson d’avril, or “April’s fish,” a phrase that can sometimes refer to April Fools’ pranks in general.
  • In Belgium, children often lock parents or teachers out of a room or building, only agreeing to let them in exchange for a treat.
  • In Poland, large-scale hoaxes by the media, and even the government are so widespread that people often avoid engaging in serious activities for the day. At least one important historic event — the signing of the anti-Turkish alliance by Emperor Leopold I in 1683 — was backdated from April 1 to March 31.
  • In Scotland, April Fools’ Day used to be called “Hunt the Gowk Day.” “Gowk” is an old Scottish word for a foolish person. A traditional prank involved sending the “gowk” to deliver a sealed message. The message instructed the recipient, “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” The recipient would then send the victim onward to another person, bearing an identical sealed message. The joke went on until either the “gowk” got wise to what was going on, or someone took pity on him.

This article was published by the staff at Farmers' Almanac. Interested in becoming a guest author? Contact us to let us know!

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