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April Fools' Day: The intriguing history and origin of tomfoolery that dates back hundreds of years

As much as we enjoy getting a laugh out of a harmless joke, it is worth wondering why we have a day dedicated to making mischief in the first place.

April Fools' Day: The intriguing history and origin of tomfoolery that dates back hundreds of years
Cover Image Source: Three jugglers with smiling faces (Pexels / Aleks Magnusson)

April Fools’ Day is celebrated worldwide, with people pulling lighthearted pranks on others in honor of an unofficial holiday. As much as we enjoy getting a laugh out of a harmless joke, it is worth wondering why we have a day dedicated to making mischief in the first place. According to My Modern Met, no specific dates or traditions have been found for the humorous holiday, but different countries have revealed their versions of April Fools’ Day for centuries. Annually celebrated on April 1, people traditionally play a joke on each other. After the trickster reveals their deception, they end the ruse by simply shouting, “April Fools!”

Because of social media, where people fool each other with large-scale hoaxes, April Fools’ is believed to be a modern-day phenomenon. In reality, the concept of April 1 dates back centuries, all the way to ancient Rome. It has evolved from a pagan celebration with special links to Hilaria, a series of ancient festivals honoring the mother of the gods, Cybele. Hilaria was observed for several days, surrounding the vernal equinox, with a feria stativa (holiday) occurring on March 25. On this auspicious day, people partook in festivities, that included a solemn procession and silly games. The masquerade was the highly awaited event where people put on disguises that enabled them to escape the monotony of everyday life and, most importantly, make mischief without revealing their identities.

Historians have recorded the roots of April Fools' over time, including a Middle English story, a date change in France, and a Flemish poem. The emergence of April Fools’ Day can be found in "The Canterbury Tales," a frame story by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in Middle English at the end of the 14th century. In one story, called the “Nun's Priest's Tale,” a Chaunticleer, a rooster belonging to a poor old widow, is fooled by a fox on March 32  The fox flatters him and calls him the most beautiful singer and his voice would be improved if he closed his eyes and stretched his neck. Upon doing so, the fox grabs the chanticleers by the throat and carries him away.

Another possible origin story begins with the 1564 Edict of Roussillon, an official order that standardized January 1 as France's first day of the year. According to French Moments, in his proclamation of Paris in January 1563, King Charles IX made a swift change to the French calendar and the royal edict was promulgated in Roussillon on August 9, 1564. However, the change came into effect on January 1, 1567. So, the people of France started to celebrate the new year around April 1, and nobody was quite happy about it. People mocked the followers of the old calendar, gave them false presents, and played tricks on them.



 

 

In "Refrain on Errand-Day," or "the first of April," a Flemish clever work by Bruges-born poet Eduard De Dene, a nobleman sends his servant to complete a series of ludicrous errands in preparation for a wedding feast on April 1. The servant was aware of it being "Errand Day," but his master ignored it and continued to send him on "fool's errands." In the 21st century, April Fools’ Day is celebrated following different customs worldwide. While it is hard to say whether the similarities between this ancient celebration and modern April Fools' Day are legit or just a coincidence, it should be noted that different cultures treat April Fools' Day with considerable seriousness.

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