April Fools’ Day is celebrated in many countries around the world on April 1 every year. Sometimes referred to as All Fools’ Day, April 1 is not a national holiday, but is widely recognized and celebrated as a day when many people play all kinds of jokes and foolishness. The day is marked by the commission of good-humoured or otherwise funny jokes, hoaxes, and other practical jokes of varying sophistication on friends, family members and people known to the prankster.
A typical example is sending the “victim” of the prank on a so-called fools’ errand… my personal favourite was told to me by an old friend whose father sent him to the ironmongors for a “long weight”. The ironmongor (who was in on the joke) told the boy to stand in the corner… after 30 minutes of being stuck in the corner twiddling his thumbs, the ironmongor told the boy he could go back to his father because he’d had his long wait!
Traditionally in the UK the jokes only last until noon. Elsewhere, such as in France, Italy, Germany and America, the jokes last all day. In France children and some jovial adults traditionally stick paper fish on each other’s back as a trick and shout “poisson d’avril!” (translated as April fish).
But where did it all begin? What are the origins of April Fools’ Day?
Precursors of April Fools’ Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, held in March , and the Medieval Festival of Fools, on 28 December still a day on which pranks are played in Spanish-speaking countries.
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392), the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is set Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two. Modern scholars believe that there is a copying error in the extant manuscripts and that Chaucer actually wrote, Syn March was gon. Thus the passage originally meant 32 days after March, i.e. May 2, the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, which took place in 1381. Readers apparently misunderstood this line to mean “March 32”, i.e. April 1. In Chaucer’s tale, the vain cock Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox.
In 1508 French poet Eloy d’Amerval referred to a poisson d’avril (April fool, literally “April fish”), a possible reference to the holiday. In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on April 1. In 1686, John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day”, the first British reference. On April 1, 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to “see the Lions washed”.
In the Middle Ages, New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25 in most European towns. In some areas of France, New Year’s was a week-long holiday ending on April 1. Many writers suggest that April Fools originated because those who celebrated on January 1 made fun of those who celebrated on other dates.
One of my all-time favourite April Fools’ Pranks was in 1957 when the BBC fooled the nation with a report on the current affairs programme Panorama about a family in southern Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from the fictitious spaghetti tree.
The 3 minute clip was broadcast at a time when this Italian dish was not widely eaten in the UK and some people were unaware that spaghetti was in fact a type of pasta. The broadcast of the Swiss Spagetti Tree hoax was described by CNN years later as “the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled.” See the clip below that fooled a nation!
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