The origins of “April Fools”: why it is called that and why jokes are made

Imagine reading that aliens have landed in your city, that spaghetti grows on trees, or that Geopop has stopped publishing. You probably won't believe it, especially if the news is dated the first of April. The tradition of jokes and the so-called “April Fool” has existed since several centuries and perhaps the tradition is even older, dating back to the era ofRoman Empire. The origins are unclear, but today thecustom is very popular throughout the Western world and is also widespread in countries in other areas. After all, it's not just pranksters who organize and do pranks on April 1st “to take the bait” friends and relatives (this is probably why we talk about April Fools' Day). Often even the most authoritative media enjoy making fun of their audience.

The uncertain origins of “April Fools”: this is why jokes are made

The origins of the custom of organizing jokes on April 1st are unclear. Some scholars have connected the tradition with the Roman festival of Hilariacelebrated on March 25in which citizens dressed up and made fun of each other.

The modern “April Fools' joke”., however, has developed more recently. One theory has it that he was born in France after the adoption of the Gregorian calendarwhich occurred in 1582, and the moving of the New Year's date to January 1st, which occurred in subsequent years. Previously, in many countries the year began on March 25th and there was a custom to exchange “New Year” gifts on April 1st. When the beginning of the year was set in January, the tradition of give away empty packages on April 1st, as a playful symbol of the old custom, now sent to the attic. The theory, however, has never been proven and there are also alternative hypotheses on the origins of April Fools' Day. What is certain is that the practice of pranks is attested since the 17th centuryat least in some places.

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The goddess CIbele, to whom the Hilarias were dedicated (Credits ChrisO)
The goddess CIbele, to whom the Hilaria were dedicated (Credits: ChrisO)

Why they say “April Fools”

Only in Italy, France, Belgium and the French-speaking areas of Canada and Switzerland are people said to reveal that they had made a joke “April Fool”. Various hypotheses have been formulated regarding the origin of the expression, some of which date back to the time of Cleopatra, who during a fishing competition had her lover Mark Antony attach an enormous fake fish to the hook. More likely, the custom derives from the fact that fish is an animal that takes the bait easily: anyone who has been pranked is hooked like a fish. In other countries, to reveal a joke you simply say “April lie” or “April! April!”. In the Anglo-Saxon world, however, the day is known as April Fool's Day (April Fool's Day).

April 1st pranks

April 1st pranks are of countless types. For example, in Italy and France, one of the most common is to attack a paper fish on his back of the victim. Even more widespread is the custom of announce false newswhich is widespread not only among private citizens, but also among media. For example, on April 1, 1957 BBC broadcast a report in which it showed farmers in the Canton of Ticino busy picking spaghetti from the trees. WikipediaHowever, on April 1, 2007, he deliberately confused US President George Washington with the inventor of instant coffee, which bears the same name.

2007 Wikipedia joke (George Washington deliberately confused with the inventor of instant coffee of the same name) (credits King of Hearts)
2007 Wikipedia joke (credits: King of Hearts)

THE social networks, naturally, have facilitated the spread of hoaxes (the news invented as a joke on April 1st should not, however, be confused with fake news, i.e. falsehoods propagated intentionally). It also happened that authentic news, released on April 1st, were mistaken for fakes. For example, April 1, 2004 Google launched the Gmail email service, equipped with one gigabyte of storage space, which was enormous for the time, but the news was mistaken by many users for a hoax, also because Google almost always organizes one on April 1st.

Where the custom of playing pranks is widespread

I am numerous countries in which pranks are organized on April 1st: almost all of Europe, the United States, Canada and also several states in the Middle East, including Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. In some countries, however, the day designated for organizing pranks is not April 1st. For example in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries it is December 28th, the day of the Holy Innocents. In the territories of Hindu religionhowever, on March 31st a holiday is celebrated which in some respects recalls April 1st, theHoliduring which there is the custom of dirtying each other with colored powders.

Holi celebration (credits Nitint 29)
Holi celebration (credits: Nitint 29)

Alan Dundes, April Fool and April Fish: Towards a Theory of Ritual Pranks, in “Etnofoor”, n.1, 1988, pp. 4-14 The Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of All Time