Whether you love it or hate it, April Fools’ Day is part of our collective culture. The holiday is celebrated, not just in the United States, but in countries all over the world. But where did this holiday come from? Other holidays seem to have relatively clear origins, but that’s not the case for April Fools’. The origins of this holiday are as silly and weird as the holiday itself and, on-brand for the holiday, we may never know which is fact, or which is fiction. That said, let’s dive into the possible origins of the holiday, so you can maybe decide for yourself:
Possible Origins For April Fools’ Day
Perhaps the ancient Romans are the reason for this season! Many people have drawn similarities to the celebrations of Hilaria, which was an equinox party for the Mother of Gods, Cybele. This massive festival would involve parades, masquerades, and little jokes, presumably like stabbing an emperor or fighting Germanic tribes. It’s this celebration that’s thought to have carried over centuries later. However, most cultures don’t reference this in the historical accounts of their celebrations. So, while the celebration might have inspired some pranks of the past, it seems unlikely to have inspired the entire holiday.
There’s another theory that Geoffrey Chaucer should be given credit for the holiday. The theory is that his famous novel, “The Canterbury Tales” makes reference to April Fools’. Apparently a vain cock is tricked by a fox because “March began thirty days and two.” This theory is a bit…controversial amongst historians and literary scholars alike. Most of the story does not take place in April and it’s likely that there have been multiple mistranslations. Also, It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that one line from this book inspired everyone in the western world to go around playing pranks on one another.
Maybe the Bible should be thanked for creating the holiday. That might seem like a stretch to some folks, but it’s a real theory. The idea is that Noah, the guy who built the big boat with the zoo on it, sent out a dove to see if the flood ended. But that silly goose sent out the bird too early, on April 1st, and found out the flood wasn’t over yet. Once again, this origin seems unlikely. Not only do early Christians have a habit of taking other cultures’ holidays and reframing them to fit a Christain narrative, but also I’ve never met anyone in my life who interrupted the Noah’s Ark story as God pulling a big prank.
Perhaps April Fools’ was started by the French, who love to be silly and merry! This scenario seems the most likely, given that there’s evidence that points to them. Back in 1582, France switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, thus changing the date of the New Year to January 1st instead of April 1 (or just around the spring equinox in general). People who were slow to hear about, or accept, the change became the butt of hilarious pranks like having paper fish pinned to their backs to symbolize a gullible guppy, one that got caught easily. They even have a name for those victims. “Poisson d’avril” translates to “April Fish” which was probably way more insulting back in those days. I have a word for the people who pin fish on people’s clothes.
Those are the most popular origin stories of April Fools’. Whichever one is most likely is really up to you, but it’s also possible that each country has its own origin stories for the holiday. France clearly has vastly different traditions than the US does. In fact, many countries around the world have vastly different ways of celebrating the holiday. Let’s take a look at a few!
How Countries Around the World Celebrate April Fools’
In Nordic countries like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, they have a tradition of posting joke headlines in their newspapers on April 1st. One headline from 1950 claimed that the island of Öland became dislodged from the ocean floor and was floating toward the mainland. This tradition lasted until 2017 when the Nordic council agreed that the rampant fake news poisoning the minds of the populace kinda ruined the joke. Some outlets still do it, but it’s much less popular now.
Ukraine has its own unique version of April Fools’ called “Humorina.” The holiday was created in 1973 and people reveal their pranks to one another by saying, “Pervoye Aprelya, nikomu ne veryu” which translates into English as, “April the 1st, I trust nobody.” This festival resembles Hilaria more than the American version of April Fools’. They have parades, concerts, and food to go along with their mischief. Said mischief includes people wearing costumes and putting fun clothes on town monuments. Why can’t America be chill like that?
In Scotland, April Fools’ is called Gowkie Day, and is named after the Scottish word for the cuckoo bird. This bird symbolizes fools and cuckolds, which indicates that day originated with some sexual connotations. Today, though, the Scots attach “kick me” signs on their friend’s backs, thus transforming those friends into enemies. The signs are meant to be attached the day after people get cuckold, so the insult to injury ratio is well met. I’m sure it’s all harmless fun for…most people.
In Germany, they love pranks. They will often tell wild stories and send people on bizarre errands, meaning that a gullible person in Germany is gonna be wasting a lot of time that day. Pulling a prank in Germany is known as “sending someone into April.” The day has been seen as unlucky for centuries, at least for nobles, which the common folk always found hilarious.
No matter how it started, April Fools’ is here. People pull pranks on April 1st all over the world, and it’s rare that the entire world has something in common. So, whether you love it or hate it, April Fools’ is here to stay. So grab a paper fish, send your friends on a wild errand, or have them sit on a whoopie cushion.
Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528