Famous Sayings #143 — ‘April Fools’ Day’

April 1, 2019

April Fools’ Day is celebrated on April 1 of the year. Just about every country has their own tradition.

April Fools Day, famous sayings

I meant to have a Famous Sayings post up yesterday, but life (and sleep) happened. Yet since today is April 1, I decided to do a post dedicated to today’s holiday of sorts, April Fools’ Day. This post could have been done last year had I left the Famous Sayings posts on Sunday, but here’s another opportunity.


What Is April Fools’ Day All About?

As many people know (and as small children may be finding out), April Fools’ Day is a day dedicated to lighthearted humor. As such, many people will take the opportunity to tell jokes and play pranks on each other. Some April Fools’ Day pranks might involve someone sending another person on a fool’s errand, in which the second person is tasked with finding items that don’t exist or things that cannot be found by normal means (Wills).

April Fools’ tricks may or not involve the type of elaborate pranks some people might play on each other on or near Halloween, for example, but establishing a hoax of some kind is common. If done right, the hoax will momentarily fool people, leading to the hoaxers yelling, “April Fools!”

As folklorist Alan Dundes pointed out, some victims of April Fools’ Day pranks are new to their settings. For example, new neighbors, employees, or fraternity/sorority pledges might be pranked as a rite of passage. There is a natural connection between the newness of one’s surroundings and the newness of spring.

The person who was fooled can be referred to as an April fool, but the tables could be turned on the hoaxers, given the situation (Wills). That’s part of the fun of April Fools’ Day, but the popularity of the Internet has made the type of hoaxes on April 1 more common year-round.


How Did April Fools’ Day Come to Be?

In all honesty, the origin of this tradition is unclear, because there is evidence that some type of day dedicated to lighthearted human has existed for hundreds of years in many countries and some religions. Yet, some theories of the day’s origin persist while a few others have been thoroughly debunked.

Roman Theory #1: Hilaria

One theory that involves the Romans is the celebration of Hilaria, also known as Roman Laughing Day, held. During the Festival of Hilaria, citizens would celebrate and vernal equinox and honor the Anatolian Earth Goddess by dressing up in disguises and telling jokes throughout the day.

It’s hard to confirm if Hilaria existed because the first references to the holiday only appeared hundreds of years after it was said to have occurred (Specktor).

Roman Theory #2: Luring Sabines into a Trap

In his book Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1905), John Brand cited a story involving Romans who were looking for wives. According to the legend, the Romans lured Sabines to Rome by announcing fake games to honor the god Neptune. When people from neighboring cities came to watch the games, the Romans kidnapped the daughters and forced them into marriage. Supposedly, this occurred early in April; however, Brand admitted that this story probably wasn’t true (Reed).

The French Theory

Some historians believe that the April Fools’ Day celebration may have begun in France after the country adopted the Gregorian Calendar. However, there is no proof to confirm this.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that the Gregorian Calendar would replace the Julian Calendar. This moved New Year’s Day celebration from April 1 to January 1. France adopted this change the same year (Johnson and Shmuel).

According to a popular legend, French citizens who recognized this change laughed at those who refused to recognize the change or who were unaware of it. The legend holds that those who were resistant or unaware of the change were called were often the butts of jokes and marks or hoaxes (Simpson).

This is debunked by the existence of a 1561 Dutch Poem by Flemish writer Eduard De Dene. In the poem, a nobleman sent his servant on a goose chase under the auspices of preparing for a wedding. At the end of the poem, the servant noted that he suspected that he was being sent on a fool’s errand.

The poem was titled “Refereyn vp Verzendekens /Twelck den eersten April te Zyne plach,” which roughly translates to “Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April (Boese). This might be an early confirmation that April 1 pranks existed long before the change to the Gregorian Calendar.

The Spring Theory

Some people have theorized that the celebration of April Fools’ Day correlates to the beginning of Spring because the fickle weather that comes with the change in seasons “fools” people. Generally, many countries decided to mark this by dedicating one day for telling jokes and pranking. In medieval Europe, this type of celebration was connected to the Feast of Annunciation, which began on March 25.


What Are Some Examples of April Fools’ Day Celebrations Around the World?

Great Britain has been celebrating April Fools’ Day since at least the 18th Century, or that’s at least when it became popular.

Scotland has a tradition which became a two-day celebration. On the first day, pranksters participate in “hunting the gowk,” during which they would send unsuspecting people on fool’s errands. The marks were called gowk because gowk is a word for “cuckoo bird,” a symbol for a fool. On the second day, Taille Day, people would pull pranks behind each other’s behinds, like pinning fake tails or “Kick Me” signs (Simpson).

In France, kids celebrate Poisson d’Avril by taking paper fish to the friend’s backs, much like a “Kick Me” sign. Whenever the person who’s the victim of such a prank realizes what was just done to them, the prankster yells, “Poisson d’Avril.” French postcards made references to the prank from the later 19th century until the early 20th century.

In France, newspapers that feature fake stories on April 1 will put in a fish reference to clue in their readers (Coyle).


What Were Some of the Best April Fools’ Day Pranks?

Some of the most effective types of April Fools’ pranks have been carried out by the mass media. For example:

In 1996, Taco Bell Corp. ran a full-page ad in newspapers in which in claimed to have purchased the Liberty Bell, which it would rename the “Taco Liberty Bell.”

In 2008, the BBC ran a video of flying penguins. As part of the joke, an anchor explained that the penguins were escaping the Arctic weather by migrating to South American tropical rainforests (Happy April Fools’ Day 2019”).

In what may be one of the best TV pranks ever pulled, the BBC program Panorama ran a segment in which a family of Italian spaghetti farmers was shown to viewers. At least 250 viewers called into the BBC inquiring how they could get their own spaghetti trees. This occurred in in 1957. At the time, spaghetti was relatively new in Great Britain (Wills).


Did You Know?

Before April 1st was called April Fools’ Day, the day was known as All Fools’ Day as late as the 19th Century. “All Fools’ Day” was the first reference by Jonathan Swift in 1712; he was later quoted in Hone’s Every Day Book (1826):

A due donation for All Fool’s Day.

The term April Fools’ Day may have first been cited in 1903, by Encyclopedia Britannica (Martin).

The April Fools’ Day tradition is referred to as “April fish” in Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and French-speaking areas of Switzerland and Canada (Coyle).

  • It is called Poissons d’Avril in French.
  • It is called aprilvis in Dutch
  • It is called pesce d’aprile in Italian.

The term “April fish” is used because younger fish are easier to catch. The people who are fooled by pranks are called “April fish” (Mikkelson).

England also has a few names for fools: “gob,” “gawby,” and “gobby” (Mikkelson).


Works Cited

Boese, Alex. “Eduard de Dene (April Fool’s Day – 1561).” The Museum of Hoaxes. Web. Retrieved 1 April 2019. <http://hoaxes.org/af_database/permalink/eduard_de_dene>.

Coyle, Alice. “5 fun facts about April Fools’ Day.” Austin American-Statesman. 29 Mar 2019. Web. Retrieved 1 Apr 2019. <https://www.statesman.com/zz/entertainmentlife/20190329/5-fun-facts-about-april-fools-day>.

Emery, David. “What’s the Origin of April Fools’ Day?” ThoughtCo. 30 Mar 2018. Web. Retrieved 1 Apr 2019. <https://www.thoughtco.com/whats-the-origin-of-april-fools-day-3299467>.

“Happy April Fool’s Day 2019: History, origin and famous pranks.” Hindustan Times. 1 Apr 2019. Web. <https://www.hindustantimes.com/more-lifestyle/happy-april-fool-s-day-2019-history-origin-and-famous-pranks/story-BbJMRYy1HxH6OXmKGheoDP.html>.

Johnson, David and Ross, Shmuel. “April Fools’ Day: Origin and History.” Infoplease. Web. Retrieved 1 Apr 2019. <https://www.infoplease.com/calendar-holidays/major-holidays/april-fools-day-origin-and-history>.

Martin, Gary. “April fool.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 1 Apr 2019. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/35100.html>.

Mikkelson, David. “April Fools’ Day Origins.” Snopes. 22 Mar 2000. Web. Retrieved 1 Apr 2019. <https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/april-fools39-day-origins/>.

Reed, Eric. “What Is the History of April Fool’s Day?” TheStreet. TheStreet, Inc. Web. Retrieved 1 Apr 2019. <https://www.thestreet.com/lifestyle/history-of-april-fool-s-day-14908127>.

Simpson, Sue. “April Fool’s Day and history of it.” The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. 31 Mar 2019. Web. Retrieved 1 April 2019. <http://www.newsandsentinel.com/opinion/local-columns/2019/03/april-fools-day-and-history-of-it/>.

Specktor, Brandon. “The Mystery Behind How April Fools’ Day Got Started.” Reader’s Digest. Web. Retrieved 1 Apr 2019. <https://www.rd.com/culture/origin-of-april-fools-day/>.

Wills, Matthew. “The Completely True History of April Fools’ Day.” JSTOR Daily. 31 Mar 2018. Web. Retrieved 1 April 2019. <https://daily.jstor.org/the-completely-true-history-of-april-fools-day/>.

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