April Fools’ Day History: The Truth Behind the Pranks

April Fools’ Day is upon us yet again! That means the chance for mirthful pranks played on hapless friends, frenemies*, family members, and coworkers. But before you unscrew the top of the saltshaker, short sheet your roommates’ bed, or fill your boss’s shoes with spiders, let’s take a moment to consider where April Fools’ Day began in the first place. While we all know April 1st is a day for merriment in the form of oft-misguided attempts at humor, what is the origin of April Fools’ Day, anyway?

It all goes back to the trenches of World War I, when beleaguered allied soldiers began looking for respite from the horrors of war, mostly in the form of lighthearted practical jokes. Popular pranks included tying a comrades’ bootlaces together before they went “over the top” or throwing rancid sandwiches at Bundeswehr foes instead of using the traditional hand grenade.

Just kidding! I mean… April Fools! There was little humor in the trenches, in fact; just gas and death and misery. But that’s taking the tenor of things in the wrong direction, so let’s move on.

Stock-April-Fish

April Fools’ Day has been “celebrated” for several centuries in countries around the globe. And, in fact, the practice seems to have developed almost independently in several different regions. As with most holidays, there is not one finite history of April Fools’ Day, but rather a few different factors that, in confluence, helped lead to the modern interpretation of how one should conduct himself or herself on April 1st. Let’s take a look at a few of the commonly accepted April Fools origin stories.

The Gregorian Calendar Switch

Up until the second half of the 16th Century, most people living in what is generally termed the Christendom were still living based on a calendar established during the era of the Roman Empire. The Julian calendar placed the start of the new year at the end of the modern calendar’s month of March. But in 1582, the not entirely humble pope Gregory XIII decreed that Christendom would switch to a new calendar named for none other than himself. This shift was widely accepted, but many people were slow to gain awareness of the new calendar; those that still celebrated the new year on April 1st thus were called April Fools by their urbane, derisive associates who had already shifted to the Gregorian calendar. (In France, one early prank included affixing paper fish to the back of those still stuck in the past, as it were, and then calling the hapless victim an “April Fish.” This re-confirms the fact that the French are better at cooking and cinéma vérité than they are at humor.)

The Roman Festival of Hilaria

Ancient Rome knew how to party. We all know of their infamous feasts and vomitoriums (despite the fact that these purpose-built puke places are the apocryphal construct of a later era), their wine-soaked parties, and of the wild, visceral experience of the gladiatorial games. One of the many festivals during which Romans got rowdy was known as Hilaria. And yes, you should make a connection to the word “hilarious,” that’s basically the whole point here. The week long revels celebrated the coming of spring and involved days of mourning and rest, but were capped off with days set aside for joyful partying, complete with costumed masquerades. Hilaria spanned the last days of (what is today) March and ended on or around April 1st, thus perhaps setting the tone for the day for all of posterity.

The Vernal Equinox Explanation

One other possible reason we denote April 1st as a day for pranks and joking is thanks to the decree of none other than Mother Nature herself. The Vernal Equinox, which is the first time the hours of daylight outnumber the hours of night in the calendar year, falls near April 1st, and the equinox is generally accepted to mean that springtime has arrived. However, depending on where one lives, the weather patterns of this time of year can be wildly unpredictable, with temperatures soaring and then dropping, rain and even snow following sunshine, and so forth. It’s almost as if nature were… playing a prank on us, see? You don’t see? Well, some Druid types do.

* The word “frenemies” is apparently now being accepted by the spellchecker software. The dark times are upon us, lads. This is not a prank.