The origins of April Fools’ Day are uncertain, but one theory is that it began in 1582, when France adopted the Gregorian calendar. Before this time, New Year’s Day fell on March 25 rather than January 1. Those who continued to celebrate the old New Year at the beginning of April were called “fools” by their early adopting contemporaries. Even before this transition, the New Year had long been associated with the term “fool.” In medieval France, the Feast of Fools fell on January 1. At this popular festival hijinks abounded: Christian ritual was burlesquely imitated, a fake pope was elected, and high and low officials swapped jobs for a day. Feast of Fools was likely modeled after the similarly themed pagan festival Saturnalia.
As this French tradition died out during the 16th century, a new one sprung up in the form of April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day. In France, the fooled party is called the poisson d’avril, which literally means “April fish.” The customary prank involves pinning a paper fish, also called the poisson d’avril, to to a friend’s back. This is not the only April Fools’ custom involving paper and backs. In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is called Gowkie Day—gowk is another name for the cuckoo, which is a common symbol of the fool. The pranks continue into April 2, Taily Day, when friends traditionally attach a “kick me” sign to their friends’ backs. Other countries have their own customs: Brazil celebrates April 1 as Dia da Mentira, or “Lie Day,” in which people try to fool their loved ones for comedic effect. Though not directly related to April Fools’ celebrations, in northern India people throw colored water and powder on others as part of the Hindu festival of Holi, which generally falls in February or March. One Holi tradition is strikingly similar to the now defunct Feast of Fools; for one day people playfully trade caste, status, gender, and age roles.
The beginning of spring marks a time of lighthearted pranking around the world. Do you know of any other April Fools’ Day customs? What are some of your favorite April Fools’ pranks?