On April 1st, people around the world will observe some version of April Fool’s Day. From India to Ireland, people will play tricks on each other, and news outlets will perpetrate good-natured hoaxes on the public. The most interesting thing about this holiday, though, is that no one is certain of its origins.
There are possible mentions of the day in literary works as early as the 1300s, when Chaucer mentions pranks being played 32 days after March began in his “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” A more definite reference can be found in a 1561 Flemish poem, wherein a servant believes that his master is playing an April 1st joke on him. There is also a mention of a “poisson d’Avril,” a practice associated with French April Fools’, in a poem that was written in 1508. While all these works tell us that the day was celebrated by at least the 16th century, it does not give us any clue of how the April 1st holiday came into existence.
Some have suggested that the practice of celebrating April Fools’ originates with the changeover of the calendar that took place in the 1500s. At this time, New Year’s Day was shifted from March 25th to its current date of January 1st. Before this change, New Year’s would be celebrated in festivals that lasted until April 1st. People who resisted the change to the new calendar would be made fun of for sticking to outdated traditions. This theory has largely been debunked, since April Fools’ events had been documented for at least 200 years by the time England changed their calendar, the last country to do so.
Some scholars believe that the origins of April Fools’ Day are rooted in ancient springtime renewal festivals. Many cultures have some form of light-hearted holiday associated with the coming of spring. During these festivals, people play jokes on each other and have parties and masquerades.
The ancient Roman festival of Hilaria may be a likely source of later April Fools’ celebrations. The Romans held this festival around the time of the spring equinox, and it involved all the requisite pranks we now associate with modern April Fools’.
There was also a medieval Feast of Fools that bears some resemblance to April Fools’. During this event, masters and servants would sometimes trade places for the day. Children would be allowed to boss their parents around. A Lord of Misrule would also be chosen by the people, who would then preside over a series of drunken parties. These celebrations were often blasphemous, so the Church worked hard to eradicate them. It is possible that, no longer able to observe the Feast of Fools, the people simply turned this holiday into a day of pranks of jokes.
These theories may partly explain the origins of April Fools’, but none do so perfectly. It could be that the day is an amalgamation of all these theories, and possibly more besides. We will probably never know for sure.