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Watch out for April Fool’s Day on April 1

Published 28-Mar-2008. Changed 6-Feb-2009

Picture of clown
Practical jokes are a part of April Fool's Day. ©iStockphoto.com/sdominick

Celebrated on April 1, April Fool’s Day, also known as All Fool’s Day, is a day for mischief and playing pranks on people. Other names include April Noddy Day, Gowkie Day, Huntigowk Day and St All-Fool’s Morn.

The calendar change hypothesis, from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, may provide a reason for why April 1 specifically became the date of April Fool’s Day. It is a tradition which spread internationally and is unofficially celebrated in many countries around the world.

Calendar Origin Theory

One theory claims that April Fool’s Day probably arose in France at the time of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. Prior to that time, under the Julian calendar, it was the custom to celebrate the New Year and exchange gifts on April 2. New Year’s Day was officially moved from March 25 to January 1 after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.

People who forgot about the change were often mocked by their friends, as they continued to make New Year visits just after the old March date. Those who failed to keep up with the change and celebrated the New Year during the week that fell between March 25 and April 1 became victims of various jokes. For example, pranksters would discreetly stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were called Poisson d'Avril, or April Fish.

The origins of April Fool’s Day are not clear but it is known that the tradition of practical joking and mischief-making dates back to Ancient Roman times. Ancient Romans and Celts celebrated a festival of practical joking around the time of the vernal equinox.

Mythical theories

According to Roman mythology, the god Pluto abducted Proserpina to the underworld. She called for her mother Ceres for help, but Ceres only heard the echo of her daughter's voice and searched for her in vain. The fruitless search, which was commemorated during a Roman festival, was believed by some to have been the mythological beginning of the “fool's errands” on April 1.

British folklore links April Fool's Day to the town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire. According to the legend, it was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the king placed his foot upon to become public property. So when Gotham’s citizens heard that King John planned to travel through their town, they refused him entry, not wishing to lose their main road. When the king heard this, he sent soldiers to the town. But when the soldiers arrived in Gotham, they found the town full of fools engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish. Their foolery was an act, but the king declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment. April Fool's Day supposedly commemorated their trickery.

Biblical Theories

Another belief on its origin points to the biblical character Noah as the first “April Fool”. It is said that on April 1, he mistakenly sent the dove out to find dry land after the flood before the waters subsided.

A second story tells that the day commemorates the time when Jesus was sent from Pilate to Herod and back again. The phrase "Sending a man from Pilate to Herod", which is an old term for sending someone on a fool's errand, could be related to this story.

The Spread of April Fool’s Day

The April Fool tradition eventually spread in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States and has now taken on an international flavor. In Scotland, April Fool's Day is devoted to spoofs involving the buttocks and is called Taily Day. The victims of these jokes are known as April 'Gowk', another name for cuckoo bird. It has been said that the origins of the "Kick Me" sign can be traced back to the Scottish observance. In England, fools are called “gobs” or “gobby” and the victim of a joke is called a “noodle”. Those who are superstitious consider it back luck to play a practical joke on someone in the afternoon.

During the 19th century an illustration highlighting various April Fool’s pranks was published in Harper's Weekly. Some of the pranks included women wearing beards and moustaches visiting an older man. Over the years, the simplest pranks usually involve children who tell each other that their shoelaces are undone and then cry out “April Fool!” when the victims glance at their feet.

April 1 is also celebrated in some countries in the Caribbean, including Jamaica and Guyana where people make fun of each other by telling not very realistic yet fairly believable stories.

Modern April Fool’s Jokes

Sometimes the media get into the act, broadcasting fictitious news items designed to amuse the public. British television, for example, once showed farmers “harvesting spaghetti” from trees in Switzerland. Other hoaxes include:

The above-mentioned hoaxes are just a few that have been played over the years. The media, some organizations and the general public have been responsible for many April Fool’s pranks, which may include funny phone calls over the radio or email jokes.

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