April Fools Day: How the world starts spring with some silliness
April Fools Day isn’t just the Internet’s favorite holiday. It’s actually been celebrated in some form or another for over 500 years— enough time that some pranks have become traditions in their own right. The origins of the celebrations are a bit murky, however, and may be tied to a universal need to wig-out by the time winter is finally over.
Highlighted historical high jinks
There are too many great pranks to keep track of, although some try. They’ve been orchestrated on both intimate and grand, institutional scales. Looking back at early hoaxes, one of the earliest recorded pranks was to send people on a “fool’s errand,” trying to fulfill impossible tasks for the amusement of others. This particular idea may have started in France, where such fools would be marked with a paper fish on their backs in honor of poissons d’avril, or April Fish. Scotland and Ireland also had traditional fools’ errands, where the victim would be sent to deliver an “urgent” message, and then repeatedly redirected to new locations, until they finally found the letter to call them out as a fool: “Send the fool further.”
On a larger scale, mass media and other commercial entities have long enjoyed participating in pranks, occasionally completely over the heads of their audience. Scandinavian news outlets traditionally publish one fake story on their cover. In 1957, the BBC duped an embarrassing number of viewers by staging the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. Taco Bell claimed to have purchased the Liberty Bell in 1996. And then of course there’s Google.
The sources of silly season around the world
Allowing for some variations in naming or specific celebrations, many cultures have spring festivals that involve a bit of silliness. Spiritual relations to All Fools Day include the Roman festival Hilaria, a day of masquerades and games, the Indian Holi festival, a celebration of good over evil, and colored dye over everyone, and Purim, the costumed carnival about Esther defeating Haman. All these events are timed near the vernal equinox, which may belie people’s motivation to free themselves from the doldrums of winter with the arrival of spring.
The timing may even be the source of the day’s name. In 1582, Pope Gregory XII ordered the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar we use today, and in doing so moved the start of the year from the start of spring to the middle of winter on January 1 (maybe this was his prank on all of us?) The story then goes that people who still set out to celebrate new years around this time were labeled as “April Fools” for not being up-to-date with the new dates. However, this may just be when things were finally named, as some celebrations and traditions had already sprung up before the adoption of the new calendar.
One final explanation from professor Joseph Boskin is that the day started as far back as Constantine in 308 AD, whom acquiesced to the fools of his court and granted one of them powers of the throne for one day. The immediate result was an edict for a day of absurdity, which lines up well with everything that followed. Of course, this is probably the greatest explanation because it is actually a prank itself. Professor Boskin’s invented explanation was published by the Associated Press in 1983 and only found out as a joke some weeks later.
My kindergartner asked: Getting into the spirit of things this morning before school, she asked if I had heard of “Silly Day” in her class at school, which had taken place “a while ago.” Her teacher said the kids could play anything but the teacher’s personal things (which was a nice detail to include!) You can imagine my surprise when she then shouted “tricked you!”
Source: April Fools' Day: Origin and History by David Johnson and Shmuel Ross, Infoplease