Where Does April Fool's Day Actually Come From?

Don't worry, this article is not a prank.
Nora Carol Photography via Getty Images

April Fool’s Day (April 1) is almost here – yet again.

Known for giving people a free pass to prank their friends, families, partners, colleagues and just about anyone else, it’s probably one of the more bizarre days in the global calendar.

Love it or loathe it, it can be quite hard to avoid the occasion.

For instance, the BBC famously displayed footage of Swiss harvesters picking spaghetti from spaghetti trees in in 1957, and had so many inquiries it had to own up to the stunt the next day.

The corporation also fooled many viewers back in 2008 when they shared footage of flying penguins. It quickly went viral.

What are the origins of April Fool’s Day?

It’s celebrated in countries around the world and is centuries old – but just where did it come from?

We know it was definitely around in Renaissance Europe, as it crops up in contemporary literature around that time, and History.com claims it became popular in 1700.

But there’s no concrete answer about where it actually originated from. Perhaps we’re all the fools for even guessing? Although there are plenty of theories...

Mischievous locals

There’s an ancient theory explained in a blog for the Library of Congress that the occasion stems from Nottinghamshire, when King John (who was real) wanted to “acquire” some land for a hunting lodge.

The unhappy locals wanted to repel him, so they successfully tricked his officials into thinking they were all mad by doing outlandish things like trying to drown fish.

Legend claims King John then changed location as a result.

But that allegedly took place in the 13th century – and it wasn’t until around the 17th century that April Fool’s Day started to pop up in literature.

Festivals of silliness

Online encyclopaedia Britannica explained that the day may have roots in the Hilaria festival of ancient Rome.

It was always held on March 25, in honour of Cybele, the mother of the gods, and the public would wear disguises with masks and costumes.

Others have pointed out that the Holi festival in India, which also takes place in March, could have a connection.

Known as the Festival of Colours, the annual occasion is still celebrated today. It’s meant to honour the arrival of spring and the Hindu god Krishna through food, dancing and the liberal throwing around of paint powder (as well as the odd prank).

Holi, the festival of colours, is a religious festival in India celebrated with paint powders during spring
hadynyah via Getty Images
Holi, the festival of colours, is a religious festival in India celebrated with paint powders during spring

New year, same fools

Britannica also points to the Edict of Roussillon in France, which came in around August 1564.

This was when French King Charles IX decided the New Year would not be celebrated at Easter (as was common in Christian countries then) but instead on January 1.

Anyone who still celebrated at Easter (a lunar date which changes every year) was therefore an “April fool”.

Weather patterns

Others think the Vernal equinox may have an impact. It’s when the sun is exactly above the equator and the day and night are of equal length.

It’s also when people might be tricked by the sudden changes in weather on March 21.

That aligns with magazine Historic UK’s speculation that April Fool’s could just be a day to mark the end of winter and coming of spring.

It notes that the day has “all the characteristics of such a renewal festival, pushing the boundaries of everyday behaviour yet with the the resultant disorder set within a strict time frame”.

Cuckoos or fish?

There may also be clues in the strange ways it is celebrated.

In Scotland, the day is Gowkie Day, named after a term for a cuckoo (gowk). This has led some to think April Fool’s was originally associated with being a cuckold (a man whose wife has an affair with another man).

Meanwhile in France, the fooled person is called poisson d’avril (April fish), and Britannica suggested that might refer to a young fish which is unwise and easily caught, so perhaps its roots go back to... fish?