APU Original

Who First Came Up with the Idea for April Fools’ Day?

By David E. Hubler
Staff Contributor, Edge

Today, April 1, is more popularly known as April Fools’ Day. Many Americans take note of the day with harmless tricks and falsehoods. Even the media has a history of getting into the act creating pseudo-news items that are revealed as false at the conclusion of the story, lest their audience falls for the bogus news.

But how did April Fools’ Day come into being? What follows is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth … maybe.

According to History.com, the origins of the day go back several centuries to England. “On April 1, 1700, English pranksters begin popularizing the annual tradition of April Fools’ Day by playing practical jokes on each other.”

Start a History degree at American Public University.

That answer is pretty incomplete as History.com acknowledges that April Fools’ Day was already an annual tradition by then.

In a more authoritative note, England no longer gets the blame for originating the silly celebration. “Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582,” History.com adds, “when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563.”

“As a result, those who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes. In other words, they were fools.”

The tricks that the French played on each another were pretty tame. Placing a paper fish on an unsuspecting person’s back “and being referred to as poisson d’avril (April fish, which even sounds better in French), said to symbolize a young, ‘easily hooked’ fish and a gullible person.”

In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk,” History.com says. People “were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or ‘kick me’ signs on them.”

(I once pinned a “Kick me” sign on the back of my father’s suit jacket. He wore it on the subway and during the day at his job on Wall Street. Someone must have let him in on the gag because he was not a happy father upon his return home.)

Writing in Readers’ Digest online, Brandon Specktor relates an April Fools’ Day prank played on a large portion of the British population. “On the evening of April 1, 1957, thousands of British families tuned in to watch Panorama—still one of the U.K.’s top current events broadcasts—to witness footage of a happy Swiss family harvesting their prized spaghetti trees.”

The four-minute segment was broadcast as a news item, Specktor wrote. It “was an intricate hoax devised by a freelance cameraman and produced for the then-princely sum of 100 pounds.”

The Readers’ Digest article also tries to pinpoint the origin of the April 1 holiday. “In 1561, a Flemish poet wrote some comical verse about a nobleman who sends his servant back and forth on ludicrous errands in preparation for a wedding feast (the poem’s title roughly translates to ‘Refrain on errand-day / which is the first of April’).” 

Specktor puts the first mention of April Fools’ Day in Britain as 1686, “when biographer John Aubrey described April first as a ‘Fooles holy day.’” 

Specktor also describes another joke played on the English population: “On April Fools’ Day, 1698, so many saps were tricked into schlepping to the Tower of London to watch the ‘washing of the lions’ (a ceremony that doesn’t exist) that the April 2 edition of a local newspaper had to debunk the hoax —and publicly mock the schmoes who fell for it.”

This was the first recorded instance of a popular April Fool’s Day prank, according to the April Fool Archive.

From there, Specktor says, “it’s a pretty straight line between lion washing and spaghetti farming.

Those news reports were false of course, unlike the famous 1867 discovery of a 10-foot tall petrified man’s body found buried in upstate New York. As the great baseball character Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.”

David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies.

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