Author: Joshua Burns
When I was a child, I remember on 31st March, I would always go to bed reciting the internal mantra ‘don’t forget, don’t forget’. Then, of course, the next morning I would wake up with sleep still in my eyes and my dad would tell me that he cracked an egg and a chicken came out or that school had been cancelled and I would believe him until I heard those dreaded words ‘April Fools’ Day!’ This is because for many countries, instead of December 28th, the day when you try to trick people or pull the wool over their eyes* is April 1st.
The origins of April Fools’ Day are difficult to find. There is a common story that when Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar to the Gregorian one in 1582, New Years was moved from April 1st to January 1st and anybody who got confused and celebrated New Years on April 1st was seen as foolish. This story was almost certainly invented afterwards, though, because the adoption of the new calendar was actually a very slow process, taking over a century, and in England it wasn’t adopted until after April Fools’ day was already a tradition.
There are other explanations some coming from Ancient Rome or France. One of my favourites, however, comes from a small town in England called Gotham. The story goes that in 13th century King John would claim any road he stayed on during his travels as his and so the people of Gotham refused him entry to their town, not wanting to lose ownership. When the king’s soldiers came to force their way in they found a town of lunatics. People on the streets were trying to drown fish or contain birds in roofless cages. The king found this display so unsettling that he let them keep their road and the day was named in honour of them. Unfortunately, like all the best stories, it seems that this one is completely made up*.
However it started, the tradition has become very well rooted in modern culture and the pranks* that people pull range from the traditional to the classic to the downright silly. In Ireland, Scotland and a few other countries there is a classic version of a trick where you give a naïve person a ‘very important’ letter and tell them to bring it to a certain person. When the person reads the letter all it says is ‘send the fool further’ and the letter carrier is sent to another person and so on until they figure out that they have been pranked.
In France there is traditional prank where children stick a fish to the back of an unsuspecting friend and when the fish is discovered they shout ‘Poisson d’Avril’ or ‘April’s fish’.
As the times moved on and with the more instant nature of the media, pranks became more creative. A classic example was in 1957 when the BBC broadcast* a programme about the ‘Swiss Spaghetti Harvest’, showing farmers in Switzerland picking freshly grown spaghetti from trees. Being one of the first April Fools’ jokes shown on TV, it duped* many people, claiming that this had been the best harvest ever thanks to ‘the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil,’ an animal which doesn’t exist.
This media tradition of the April Fools’ day has gone from strength to strength, especially with the rise of the Internet. Google, for example, has a strong history of pranking people with such classic ones like the animal translator where you can use a device to understand what your pets are saying or the ‘weather control’ app where you can choose what kind of weather you want.
All in all, April Fools’ is a very popular day with people getting as much fun out of tricking people as they do from getting tricked. There is, however, one last tradition to remember – it ends at 12:00, midday. If you try to prank someone after this time then you become the fool because, as the old rhyme says ‘April Fools’ is dead and gone and you’re the fool to carry it on*.
Pull the wool over someone’s eyes : to trick someone
Made up : invented
Pranks: practical jokes
Broadcast: to transmit something on radio or TV
Carry on : continue