The month of April is known as the beginning of spring, with warmer weather, blooming buds, and refreshing rain showers, but it also brings about the holiday of pranksters: April Fools’ Day (which has more to do with springtime than one might think). And while I’m not one to play practical jokes on others, my daughter Maggie loves a good April Fools’ trick.
The origin of April Fools’ Day is a bit puzzling, though—and it seems fitting that no one can exactly pinpoint how or why we celebrate a mischief-filled day. There are a plethora of explanations, most of them calendar-centric. Julius Cesar changed the Roman calendar to the Julien calendar (which he created) in 46 BC, which made the first day of January the beginning of the New Year. Today, we follow the Gregorian calendar created by Pope Gregory in 1582 and a close relative to the Julien calendar. Before that time, “official” New Year dates varied from country to country. Before the January begin was established, many cultures accepted the beginning of spring as the beginning of the New Year.
The most common calendar-change theory involves France revising its calendar in the sixteenth century to match the Roman calendar (i.e. instead of beginning a new year in the spring, it would begin in January). It is said that citizens who were unaware of the change—or who just refused to follow the new calendar—were often subject to jokes and referred to as “April fools”. These ‘fools’ often ended up with paper fish stuck to their backs and called poisson d’Avril (April Fish), which is still the French term for the holiday.
Some scholars believe April Fools’ Day stemmed from ancient European springtime renewal festivals taking place at what—at that time—was considered the beginning of the year. Participants often wore costumes to conceal their identities and played pranks on one another at the celebrations. Behavior that would typically be frowned up was allowed during the festivals’ timeframes, and social hierarchy often ceased for the period of a day.
Regardless of the origins of the holiday, some of the tricks that have occurred on April 1st are recognized as classics. One of the most memorable April Fools’ pranks is the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax. In 1957, the BBC aired a story showing farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees. The network received an overwhelming number of calls from viewers wanting their own spaghetti tree. In recent years, businesses and the media have gotten more involved in pranking (un)suspecting audiences in marketing ploys. In 1996, Taco Bell made claims that it has purchased the Liberty Bell, causing quite an uproar. A few years back, Scope jokingly debuted bacon-flavored mouthwash, and Hyundai announced production of their version of the “Popemobile.”
For you merry pranksters out there, your day has arrived! For the rest of us, brace yourselves for the onslaught of puns, hoaxes, and potential whoopee cushions in your future. And, of course, take almost everything you read online and social media with a grain of salt.