The Curious History of April Fools’ Day

Another year, another April 1, another set of un-funny pranks. April Fool’s Day is as loathed as it is loved. Perhaps that’s because many people misinterpret this day of pranks as being a day to lie about things. Some lies are entertaining, such as Google and Netflix’s annual fake products and shows. Others are annoying, such as Taco’s Bell’s ads claiming that it had purchased the Liberty Bell. And others are just bizarre, such as the BBC’s 1957 prank that people were harvesting spaghetti from trees. (Sounds like a Monty Python sketch.)

When I was in grade school, April Fool’s Day was an excuse for the class clowns to spin yarns and yank down people’s pants. While it could be a day to acknowledge that we’re all a little foolish, it’s instead a junior psychopath’s playground or an excuse for marketing stunts.

How did all this start? When did we decide that the first day of April would be a day for shenanigans and un-truths? And why do we still execute these really, really bad pranks?

Those Goofy French

Although no one knows for sure, many historians believe that April Fools’ Day began in France in the mid-16th century. Back then, New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25, and in typical French fashion, the celebration lasted a whole week. When King Charles IX discovered that New Year’s Day was on different dates throughout Europe, he decided to put a stop to that nonsense and issued the Edict of Roussillon, which made the date January 1.

French traditionalists were upset and decided to keep on celebrating New Year’s on April 1. Naturally, their mischievous neighbors decided to make fun of them by sending fake invitations to New Year’s parties on April 1. And so the cruel April Fools’ Day hoax was born.

A Long Tradition of Foolishness

Some historians aren’t satisfied with that explanation. For one thing, days celebrating foolishness existed before the Edict of Roussillon. In fact, what would eventually become New Year’s Day was the date of the traditional Feast of Fools, in which a fake pope was selected and the church was widely mocked. There’s also no explanation for how a French tradition came to take over the majority of Western nations.

Perhaps it’s that April 1 is close to the vernal equinox, when spring officially begins and people begin shaking off their winter slump. I can imagine that being cooped up indoors for months might make one a little stir-crazy. The switch from winter to spring also is associated with a sense of inversion and opposition, which could apply to truths as well. After all, the main thrust of April Fools’ Day is not just to make fun of people, but also to give some, shall we say, “alternative facts.”

April Fools’ in the Era of Fake News

For centuries, newspapers and publishers have released a fake story on April 1. Often, these stories double as satirical pieces, taking aim at everything from politicians to pop culture. Some companies even release news-style reports as marketing gags, such as this clever faux-BBC report from Kraken Rum. Still, in an age when Americans are easily enraged by fake news, one wonders what the future of April Fools’ will hold.

These days, everything seems like a cruel joke or massive prank, orchestrated by ridiculous politicians and inept leaders. Add in a dose of catastrophe and a demand for authenticity, and April Fools’ seems a little too real. Perhaps we’re evolving as a species, or perhaps we’ve lost our sense of humor. It’s hard to say.

On the plus side, at least we never have to face the existential horror of a Chocolate Whopper.

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