It’s April Fools’ Day, so you’re probably
devoting more brainpower than you’d care to
admit to potential hoaxes that your friends and
co-workers – might pull on you.
But why April 1, of all days? How did we come to
associate the first day of the fourth month of the
year with an opportunity to take advantage of
the more gullible among us? The short answer is
nobody really knows.
The longer answer: The first clear and
widespread mentions of April Fools’ Day
occurred in the 18th century. But even then,
people wondered about its origins.
“Whence proceeds the custom of making April
Fools?” one correspondent wrote in the British
Apollo magazine in 1708.
By that point, the custom was already well-
established across parts of Europe, enough that
people there regarded its origins as long-lost
history. No one is sure how, exactly, a tradition
so potent could have sprung up without more
frequent mentions in the written record in the
But it’s clear that playing tricks and pulling
pranks in the spring has a much richer history
than you might expect for such a silly holiday.
Even Chaucer might have given April Fools’
Day a shout-out
Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” a
1392 work, depicts a rooster named
Chauntecleer being fooled by, and in turn
fooling, a fox. This happens “Syn March bigan,
thritty dayes and two,” which seems to be a clear
reference to the 32nd day after the beginning of
March, or April 1.
But scholars have thrown hot water on this
theory: Most think “bigan” is a scribal error, and
Chaucer actually meant 32 days after March
ends, or May 2, which marked the then-recent
anniversary of King Richard II’s engagement to
Anne of Bohemia.
The scribal error might suggest that even then,
scribes associated pranks with April 1 – but this
doesn’t qualify as hard evidence. The first
definite reference to April Fools’ Day comes from
a 1561 Flemish poem by Eduard de Dene, in
which a nobleman sends his servant on
annoying, fruitless errands. (Fools’ errands!) At
the end of each stanza, the servant frets that
what he is being asked to do is nothing more
than an April 1 joke.
So by the 16th century, there was some
widespread recognition of the custom to play
practical jokes on the first day of April. This,
taken together with a reference to “poisson
d’Avril,” a French April Fools’ custom, in a poem
published in 1508 , leads scholars to date the
origins of the holiday to northern continental
Europe – after which it probably spread to
Over the next century, April Fools’ Day jokes
started to become ubiquitous.
In the early 1600s, for example, the legend about
the Duke of Lorraine’s escape from prison
became the stuff of folklore. On April 1, 1632, it
is said that the duke and his wife escaped a
prison in Nantes simply by walking out the front
gate dressed as peasants. Someone noticed
them and told the guards, but the guards
believed it to be an April Fools’ trick, allowing
the couple to escape. (The duke and duchess
definitely did escape in April 1634; it’s harder to
confirm whether they escaped on April 1.)
By the close of the century in England, it had
become a popular prank to send gullible victims
to the Tower of London to see the washing of
the lions – a ceremony that certainly didn’t
exist. The prank’s first mentioned appeared in a
British newspaper on April 2, 1698, where an
article on the front page read, “Yesterday being
the first of April, several persons were sent to
the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.”
Examples of this particular hoax continued at
least through the mid-1800s.
April Fools’ Day has all the hallmarks of a
But the sources of April Fools’ Day are probably
Nearly every culture has some kind of festival to
mark the coming of spring. These occasions,
which anthropologists have dubbed “renewal
festivals,” typically involve some sort of
organized mayhem. People play pranks on
friends, wear disguises, or somehow reverse the
social order: Servants give orders to masters, or
children challenge their parents’ authority.
April Fools’ Day fits the pattern. For one day in
spring, behaviors that are normally considered
socially unacceptable – pranks, deception, even
heartlessness – become temporarily socially
acceptable, made lighter by the prospect of
One of the oldest versions sounds a lot like April
Fool’s Day: the Roman festival of “Hilaria.”
Across the Roman Empire, the festival was
celebrated on March 25, to commemorate the
resurrection of the Roman god Attis. The festival,
which coincided with the spring equinox, invited
Romans to rejoice; games, pranks, and
masquerades were common.
Other scholars have also associated the holiday
with the Hindu festival of Holi and the medieval
Feast of Fools . The Feast of Fools was
celebrated in the same parts of Europe where the
first traces of April Fools’ can be found. For
centuries in Europe, celebrants elected a “lord of
misrule” and parodied church customs, often in
extremely blasphemous ways. The church
attempted to stamp out the ritual, but it endured
through about the 16th century.
All of this suggests that playing essentially
harmless pranks in the spring has a long, cross-
cultural history. But it doesn’t explain how April
Fools’ itself came to be.
Did April Fools’ Day come from changes to
France and England both changed their
calendars in the past 500 years, and both
countries shifted New Year’s Day from early
spring to January. That’s led to a theories that
April Fools’ Day started as a reaction to the
France changed its calendar in 1564, when King
Charles IX shifted the date marking the start of
the new year to January 1 from March 25. The
spring celebration used to continue through
April 1, and, the legend goes, many French
people resisted the change or simply forgot
about it, continuing to party and exchange gifts
through April 1.
Mischief makers poked fun at these French
conservatives and their steadfast attachment to
the old tradition by sending them silly gifts and
invitations to nonexistent parties. They would
also stick paper fish to their backs, popularizing
the French term for a person who gets duped on
April Fools’ Day: “poisson d’Avril,” or “April
The idea seems to be a reference to the fact that
fish are most plentiful and hungry during the
spring. An “April fish” was easier to catch, i.e.,
more gullible, than a fish at any other time of the
In Britain, meanwhile, the legal switch from
March 25 until January 1 wasn’t made until
almost two centuries later than the rest of
Europe. That has led other people to point to
Britain, not France, as the country whose
calendrical flub produced a day of tomfoolery.
As evidence, the first mention of the calendar
change theory in the written record ascribes its
origins to England, not France. In 1766, a
correspondent wrote to the Gentleman’s
The strange custom prevalent throughout
this kingdom, of people making fools of
one another upon the first of April, arose
from the year formerly beginning, as to
some purpose, and in some respects, on
the twenty-fifth of March, which was
supposed to be the incarnation of our
Lord; it being customary with the
Romans, as well as with us, to hold a
festival, attended by an octave, at the
commencement of the new year — which
festival lasted for eight days, whereof the
first and last were the principal; therefore
the first of April is the octave of the
twenty-fifth of March, and, consequently,
the close or ending of the feast, which
was both the festival of the Annunciation
and the beginning of the new year.
But the timing for this theory, too, is a little off.
Britain switched the start of its calendar in 1752.
By then, April Fools’ Day was already an
established tradition both in England and in the
rest of Europe, and people were already
wondering why people played tricks on each
other in the spring.
Even the French theory has some problems. As
far back as 1507, records show that at least
some French towns exchanged gifts for the new
year on January 1, following the Roman
tradition. If that’s true, the legal transition away
from marking the new year on Easter would have
lasted more than half a century, leaving ample
time for France’s culture to shift, too.
The timing of the French calendar switch fits the
facts of April Fools’ Day so loosely, in fact, that
many scholars now regard it as an example.
of “metafolklore” — when a story springs up to
explain the origins of a folk holiday.
Today, April Fools’ has evolved into pranks
that go viral.
Whether tricking people to go watch imaginary
lions get imaginary baths in the 1800s or
sending people fake invitations to nonexistent
parties in France in the 1500s, April Fools’
pranks have maintained their silliness.
In France, people still celebrate “poisson d’Avril”
on April Fools’ Day; kids try to tape paper fish
on adults’ backs without them noticing.
The holiday has tricked many around the world
– some cases more elaborate than others, and
some from voices of greater authority:
On April 1, 1905, a newspaper in Berlin
broke the news that the US Treasury had
been robbed of $268 million. The paper
even reported specifically how the whole
On April 1, 1957, the BBC aired a spoof
documentary about spaghetti crops in
Switzerland, during which a distinguished
broadcaster narrated a story about a family
that harvested spaghetti from trees – it even
had footage of women picking strands of
spaghetti off a tree and laying them in the
sun to dry.
On April 1, 1975, an Australian TV station
said the nation down under would be
switching to a metric time system, where
seconds became millidays, minutes became
centidays, and hours became decidays.
On April 1, 1987, Los Angeles DJ Steve
Morris, from the KRTH-FM station , said all
the freeways in LA and Orange County
would close for major repairs for several
days. His show received hundreds of angry
calls that day.
And then there is the great NPR prank of
April 1, 2014, in which the media outlet
promoted a story on Facebook headlined,
“Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?”
which sparked outrage in the post’s
comments section. But had the commenters
actually read the article, they would have
seen all it said was, “Congratulations,
genuine readers, and happy April Fools’
It’s April Fools’ Day, so you’re probably