A history of April fools’

Across the globe people of all ages are familiar with light hearted April Fools’ Day pranks - but how did this tradition begin? Read on to find out how some believe this holiday got started.

The first of April has long been the one day out of the year where pranksters get a free pass to play practical jokes on their friends, so long as they shout ‘April Fools’!’ after.

But, perhaps the biggest prank of them all - nobody knows for sure how the holiday’s traditions even began!

Let’s take a look into the mysterious and somewhat debated beginnings of what we now call April Fools’ Day.

That’s Hilaria-ous

Celebrated in ancient Rome by the Cybele-Attis cult, Hilaria was a day of sheer happiness (the word comes from the Latin word for ‘joyful’) held during the March equinox which praised the resurrection of Attis, as told in their legends. Hilaria was just one of several celebrations in the multi-day festival of Cybele, but was the most lighthearted compared to the previous days’ more sombre events.

Followers celebrated Hilaria by wearing costumes or disguises, holding public fairs, and playing pranks on one another. The kinds of April Fools’ pranks we see today may not be accompanied by an all-out street party, but it’s possible that pieces of this ancient tradition carried on down through the centuries.

Forget to reset your calendar?

Another possible origin story comes from the second half of the 16th century in France. In those days, France followed the Julian calendar which started the new year with Easter and was intended to align with the spring equinox.

Following the Council of Trent and King Charles IX’s 1564 Edict of Roussillon, France standarised the date for their kingdom to recognise the new year on January 1. Some 20 years later this same system would be introduced across Europe as the Gregorian calendar we use today.

Back in France, some unfortunate people weren’t quick enough to change their plans - or outright refused to adhere to the new calendar - and continued celebrating in the last week of March and first week of April. Thus, they were dubbed “April fools” and in some instances pranked by their peers.

One such prank included attaching paper fish to the ‘fools’’ backs, and calling them a ‘poisson d’avril’ (April fish), in effect saying that the person was easily caught and foolish. This tradition of putting paper fish onto an unsuspecting person’s back remains in France even to this day, usually between friends and partners.

Modern fools

Today, in many places around the world April Fools’ pranks are typically harmless and played on friends, family or colleagues. The prankster usually reveals their intentions immediately after the joke by saying ‘April Fools!’ or some other variation of the phrase in their own language and according to their local customs.

Pranks could be something as simple as convincing a friend that a ridiculous lie is true, then coming clean about the prank. Some pranksters take their practical jokes very seriously, and construct elaborate pranks on their peers. 

Even some major corporations and news outlets get in on the April Fool’s fun. One memorable prank came from National Geographic, who in 2016 announced on Twitter that they would no longer publish photos of animals without clothing. This publication, who is renowned for its stories and photography of nature and wild animals, linked Twitter users to this gallery on their site which revealed the announcement to be a hoax.