A Brief History of April Fools’ Day

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In France, it is customary for children to stick pictures of fish on their friends' backs. Photo credit to TimeAndDate.com.

Aislinn Connon, Editor-in-Chief

April Fools’ Day is a holiday celebrated by a variety of cultures around the world, and every year brings dozens of new prank ideas to try on friends and family. However, for such a widely-known holiday, historians aren’t quite sure about where or when April Fools’ Day was created. Here are some of the most popular theories of this holiday’s origins.

The most widely accepted explanation is that of the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar. Before the Gregorian Calendar became the norm, cultures throughout Europe (including the Romans and anyone under their control) used the Julian Calendar, whose New Year’s Day was set around April 1. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII called for the Gregorian Calendar to replace the Julian one, and this calendar placed New Year’s Day on January 1. Some traditionalists refused to accept the change and continued to celebrate the beginning of the year around April, which resulted in them becoming the punchline of several jokes. It is also likely that these traditionalists were not even aware of the change in calendars, due to the obvious lack of communication in the 1500s.

There are some problems with this theory, of course. The main issue is that it fails to explain how April Fools’ Day spread to other European countries. In places such as the British Isles and eastern Europe, there is proof of the holiday being celebrated before the Gregorian Calendar was instated. As logical as this theory is, unfortunately it is not possible for it to be the definite answer.

Another, less practical theory comes from a myth that originated in Constantine. The legend goes that one day, a court jester jabbed at the emperor for not doing as good of a job of running his empire as he could have done. Insulted, the emperor allowed the jester to take over his throne for the day to prove that it was not an easy job. This day happened to fall on April 1, with the “fool” in this case referring to the jester. It is a creative explanation for the holiday, but this myth is, well, a myth, and it’s likely that it never took place at all.

There are many bits and pieces of an explanation that don’t have a full theory behind them. Some historians believe that April Fools’ Day is somehow tied to the spring equinox, which is only a week and a half before April 1. Others say that it is an evolution of the Roman festival of Hilaria, which was celebrated towards the end of March and was more similar to Halloween; it involved people dressing up in disguises and hiding their identities. Finally, many have just chalked it up to different cultures having their own lighthearted festivals in celebration of the transition from winter to spring, and they all happen to fall around April 1. Regardless of which theory seems to be the most accurate, it can be agreed that few, if any, other holidays are shrouded in as much mystery. The true origins of April Fools’ Day might never be known, but in the end, celebrating the holiday is just as important as where it came from.