Subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter

What are the origins of April Fools’ Day?

David Swift

Reading the newspaper to pick out the fictitious stories and being alert that you might become the butt of a joke amongst your friends on 1st April is always great fun.

In the UK April Fools’ Day is the one day of the year when it is completely OK to joke around and in fact everyone is on a mission to get their nearest and dearest to believe something ridiculous or make them do something outrageous.

It is a day that gets everyone laughing and joking but what are the origins of such a quirky custom? 

Well I bet you won’t guess because when I started researching the origins of April Fools’ Day I was surprised at what I found.

Ancient civilisations including those of the Romans and Hindus, celebrated New Year's Day on or around 1 April, to coincide with the start of spring. In medieval times, much of Europe celebrated 25 March as the beginning of the New Year, as Christians believe this is when the Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary to inform her that she would be the mother of Jesus.

This all changed in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar (the Gregorian calendar) to replace the old Julian Calendar. The new calendar called for New Year's Day to be celebrated 1Jan. That year, France adopted the reformed calendar and shifted New Year's Day to 1Jan.

According to a popular explanation, many people either refused to accept the new date, or did not learn about it, and continued to celebrate New Year's Day on 1April. Other people began to make fun of these traditionalists, sending them on "fool's errands" or trying to trick them into believing something false. Eventually, the practice spread throughout Europe and became known as April Fools’ Day.

Now I bet you didn’t expect those to be the origins of such a frivolous day!

The first British reference to April Fools’ Day was in 1698 when an article was written about people being tricked into going to the Tower of London to see the lions being washed.

April Fools’ Day remains popular in the UK. Big companies even spend lots of money advertising products that are made-up. Traditionally in England a prank can only be pulled before midday and an April Fool joke is revealed by shouting "April fool!" at the recipient.

Tesco's April Fools Hoax 2014

Tesco's April Fools' hoax 2015 - The supermarket pretended to trial bouncy aisles

In Scotland and Ireland the traditional prank is to ask someone to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requests help. In fact, the message reads "Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile." The recipient, upon reading it, will explain he can only help if he first contacts another person, and sends the victim to this next person with an identical message.

The UK media has a long history of fooling the public with elaborate hoaxes for April Fools Day. In one famous prank from 1957, the BBC broadcast a film in their Panorama current affairs series purporting to show Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti, in what they called the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. The BBC were later flooded with requests to purchase a spaghetti plant, forcing them to declare the film a hoax on the news the next day.

Back to more UK Culture