A Fool’s Errand and Other Forms of Foolery on April Fools’ Day

I know your inbox is probably full of pranks today but…

April 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.

—Mark Twain

Every year on April 1, the world turns into a minefield of pranks and deception—all in the name of a centuries-old holiday. But why and how did this Fools’ Day tradition start and what’s the significance of the date?

One of the oddest annual traditions on the modern calendar falls on the first day of April otherwise known as April Fools’ Day. Once a day reserved for harmless pranks pulled on friends and family, April Fools’ Day now reaches into the furthest depths of the internet with multimillion-dollar brands and corporations getting in on the fun. Although the tradition is certainly an oddity, it’s strange still that no one is exactly sure where April Fools’ Day comes from.

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Some historians think when France moved to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, those who still celebrated the New Year in April (having not gotten the memo, wilfully or otherwise about the calendar change) were labeled April fools. Others have tied the tradition to an ancient Roman festival called Hilaria which took place in late March. A more modern version of April Fools’ Day took root in 18th-century Britain before evolving into the mischief holiday we know today.

The origins of the prank-lovers’ favorite holiday are murky. It’s possible that the entire concept of April Fools’ Day is itself a prank. Or is it?

The origin of April Fools’ Day is debated but its history covers centuries of April Fools’ pranks from family high jinks (like pranks to play on your parents or your kids) to office pranks (like having your co-worker call a funny number) and April Fools’ jokes at everyone’s expense.

Your pranking ambitions might be a little more modest but what gave rise to those ambitions in the first place? When is April Fools’ Day 2024? And why do we collectively try to pull a fast one on this day? Let’s look into the origin of April Fools’ Day.

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April Fools’ Day is an annual holiday that consists of practical jokes, pranks and hoaxes. Pranksters often unmask their joke by yelling a loud and proud, April Fools at their victim. This custom has been observed for hundreds of years.

April Fools’ Day always occurs on the first of April. In 1561, a Flemish poet wrote some comical verse about a nobleman who sends his servant back and forth on ludicrous errands in preparation for a wedding feast (the poem’s title roughly translates to “Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April”). The first mention of April Fools’ Day in Britain was in 1686 when biographer John Aubrey described April 1 as a Fooles holy day.

It’s clear that the habit of sending springtime rubes on a fool’s errand was rampant in Europe by the late 1600s. On April Fools’ Day in 1698, so many saps were tricked into schlepping to the Tower of London to watch the washing of the lions (a ceremony that didn’t exist) that the April 2 edition of a local newspaper had to debunk the hoax—and publicly mock the schmucks who fell for it.

The April 2, 1698 edition of Dawks’s News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” This is the first recorded instance of a popular April Fools’ Day prank that involved sending people to the Tower of London to see the washing of the lions. The joke was that there was no lion-washing ceremony. It was a fool’s errand.

Back to the origin of April Fools’ Day and how did it become an international phenomenon?

The totally legit, not-pulling-your-leg answer to the origin of April Fools’ Day is: Nobody really knows.

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Historians do have some clues, though. For one thing, we do know that April Fools’ Day customs date back to at least Renaissance Europe but it’s likely the tradition originated long before then.

Some historians have linked April Fools’ Day to the ancient Roman festival of Hilaria where at the end of March people would come together to commemorate the resurrection of the god Attis. It was a celebration of renewal in which revelers would dress up in disguises and imitate others.

It’s also possible that the medieval celebration of the Feast of Fools where a mock bishop or pope was elected and church customs were parodied could have inspired the day.

In 1561, an early, clear-cut reference to April Fools’ Day appears in a Flemish poem written by Eduard de Dene. In the poem, a nobleman sends his servant out on a series of wild errands. The servant eventually realizes that these are fool’s errands because the date is April 1.

Scholars say one of the first mentions of an April Fools’ Day in English appears in John Aubrey’s 1686 book Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme which reads, in part: “We observe it on the first of April. And so, it is kept in Germany everywhere.”

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April Fools’ Day is apparently an ancient enough tradition that the earliest recorded mentions including the following excerpt from a 1708 letter to Britain’s Apollo magazine ask the same question we do: “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?”

Even in 1760 there was speculation as to the origins of the holiday with a line in Poor Robin’s Almanac reading: “The First of April some do say. Is set apart for all Fool’s Day. But why the people call it so. Nor I nor they themselves do know”

One likely predecessor to the origin of April Fools’ Day is the Roman tradition of Hilaria, a spring festival held around March 25 in honor of the “first day of the year longer than the night” (to us, the vernal equinox which typically falls on March 20). Festivities included games, processions, and masquerades during which disguised commoners could imitate nobility to devious ends.

It’s hard to say whether this ancient revelry’s similarities to modern April Fools’ Day are legit or coincidence as the first recorded mentions of the holiday didn’t appear until several hundred years later.

While April Fools’ Day is not technically considered a national holiday, many countries have adopted the idea of playing pranks on or around April 1.

For example, France celebrates April Fools’ Day on April 1 by sticking a paper fish onto the backs of as many people as possible while yelling Poisson d’Avril! (Fish of April). This particular tradition is now mostly practiced by children.

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This centuries-old name is linked to a 1508 poem by Renaissance composer and writer Eloy d’Amerval who used the phrase to describe the springtime spawn of fish as the easiest to catch; young and hungry. April fish were considered more susceptible to hooks than older fish swimming around at other times of year. Today, celebrating April fish in France—as well as Belgium and Italy—is akin to April Fools’ Day complete with pranks.

Prima Aprilis, uważaj, bo się pomylisz! is a phrase frequently spoken on April 1 in Poland. This translates to: “April Fools’ Day, be careful—you can be wrong!” Be wary of any appointment changes or news reports on this day if you don’t want to fall victim to a trickster’s trap.

A foolish person in Scotland is called agowk so it makes sense that the day is traditionally known as Hunt the Gowk Day. Scotland is unique in that they celebrate April Fools’ Day for the first two days of April. The first day is celebrated by pranking and hoaxing people while the second—known as Tailie Day—is when people place tails on each other’s backs.

On Första April (April 1) in Sweden many are out attempting to trick others as is the usual activity for April Fools’ Day. However, if you are successful at tricking someone, instead of screaming “April fools!” you’d shout the phrase “April, April, din dumma sill, jag kan lura dig vart jag vill!” before running away. This means: “April, April, you stupid herring, I can trick you wherever I want!”

In Greece, successfully tricking someone on this day is said to bring the prankster good luck for the entire year. In some parts of the country, rainfall on April 1 is said to have healing abilities.

Most of us don’t especially enjoy being pranked, tricked, or otherwise made to look like a fool but April 1 arrives all the same. If you’re dreading the shenanigans inherent in that most dreaded of holidays, it would behoove you to peruse the calendar for all the other days to celebrate. Here are five of them:

Although we may never know its true origins, April 1 has come to represent a day of joy and comedy as we move out of the darkness of winter and into the spring.

And no matter how you choose to celebrate the day, it’s best to be wary of what you read and what you hear on April Fools’ Day.

Except for this story, of course!

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Numbers don’t lie

  • 265: Jokes included in Philogelos, an ancient Greek book dating to the fourth or fifth century
  • $50,000: Taco Bell’s donation for Liberty Bell upkeep after claiming the brand bought it in a 1996 prank
  • 2000: Year Google released the mind-reading MentalPlex search tool, its first April Fools’ prank
  • 3,900+: Age of the world’s oldest known joke written by ancient Sumerians in 1900 BC

Worth Pondering…

Here cometh April again, and as far as I can see the world hath more fools in it than ever.

—Charles Lamb