Who Started April Fools’ Day?

Celebrated on the first day of April every year, April Fool’s Day is cloaked in mystery, fun, and a long-standing history of tricks and hoaxes. But who started April Fools’ Day? What’s the story behind April Fools’ Day, and were the April Fools’ Day origins a series of elaborate pranks themselves? Read on to find out.

19 March 2024

April Fools’ Day is a day known for pranks, jokes, and hoaxes where people around the world engage in light-hearted deception and humour, proclaiming ‘April Fool’ when they convince their mark to call the zoo and ask for Mr. Lyon, or when pranksters on a construction site send the newbie to the builder’s yard and get them to ask for a long weight. It has historical and cultural origins that date back centuries, embodying a universal spirit of fun and mischief, but the true history behind April Fools’ Day remains a genuine mystery.

This most-unique of days also has a history stretching back hundreds of years, and perhaps even thousands. Indeed, on April Fools’ Day 1698, one London newspaper invited residents into the Tower of London to witness the ceremonial ‘washing of the lions’, a non-existent ceremony that had never taken place. The day after, the same newspaper debunked the prank, at the same time publicly mocked those who showed up to see Leo get lathered.

But the people of the world aren’t as gullible today, are they?

Let’s delve into the multifaceted April Fools’ Day origins, exploring various theories regarding when and why this tradition started, its resemblance to similar festivals from ancient times, and more.

Who Started April Fools’ Day?

April Fools' Day, April 1st (Credit: staycool_de via Getty Images)

The truth is, no-one knows for sure who started the tradition of April Fools’ Day. The history behind April Fools’ Day is in fact shrouded in ambiguity, with several prevailing theories attempting to explain how this tradition of pranks and jest came to be.

Was it the Romans?

c. 17th century print of the goddess Cybele (Credit: Sepia Times via Getty Images)

One of the most commonly-told stories about the origins of April Fools’ Day is that it can be traced back to the  ancient Roman festival of Hilaria (in Latin, ‘the cheerful ones’). It was celebrated on the March equinox – the first day of the year longer than the night – in honour of an Anatolian mother goddess named Cybele. It was said to have involved processions and games, as well as commoners dressing up in costumes or disguises and mocking or imitating the nobility and even magistrates.

Was it the French?

The royal court of King Charles IX (Credit: Culture Club via Getty Images)

Could the story behind April Fools’ Day lay at the feet of a sixteenth century French king? A prominent tale of April Fool origin may have begun with the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar under King Charles IX in 1582. The change moved the beginning of the new year from the end of March to January 1. However, those who either refused to accept the new date or remained unaware of the change continued to celebrate the new year during the last week of March through to April 1st. These people became the butt of jokes and hoaxes, hence the association with fools.

Was it Geoffrey Chaucer?

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (Credit: Photo 12 via Getty Images)

There’s a theory linking the story behind April Fools’ Day to Chaucer’s fourteenth century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. The connection is made through the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, where Chaucer describes a vain chicken named Chauntecleer who is tricked by a fox on “syn March bigan thritty dayes and two.” Some scholars interpret this line to mean March 32nd, or April 1st, suggesting that the chicken was fooled on what could be considered April Fools’ Day.

Was it Mother Nature?

Spring equinox sunrise, Michigan, USA (Credit: Wiltser via Getty Images)

Another hypothesis about the history behind April Fools’ Day is that it’s tied to the vernal equinox, which occurs around the third week of March and is the traditional signal for the transition from winter to spring. Some suggest it was Mother Nature ‘fooling’ with unpredictable changes in the weather, others postulate it may be rooted in the ancient celebrations of fertility, renewal and a fruitful harvest which happened at this time of year. These celebrations often involved rituals, festivities, and playful mischief aimed at welcoming the new season and tricking or fooling each other in good spirits.

Was it Something Else?

Dancing during Holi (Credit: maodesign via Getty Images)

Over the years, April Fools’ Day origins have been credited to a number of different festivals, rituals and celebrations. These include the mediaeval Feast of Fools, where a mock bishop, archbishop or even a Pope would be ‘elected’ and ecclesiastical customs would be parodied, and even the Hindu festival of Holi. This celebrates the arrival of spring with children and adults spraying each other with brightly coloured powder known as gulal.

Despite these theories, the answer to the question ‘who started April Fools’ Day’ remains a mystery, with no single explanation universally accepted. The day’s celebration across different cultures suggests it may have multiple origins, converging into the modern tradition of merriment and mild trickery observed around the world.

The Most Famous April Fools’ Day Jokes

Big Ben (Photo: Sylvain Sonnet via Getty Images)

There have been lots of great April Fools jokes over the years, some of which have taken their place in our collective memory as the most spectacular of April Fools’ japery.

Blundering BBC

In the UK, perhaps the most famous hoax happened in 1957 in a three-minute segment on Panorama, one of the world’s longest-running current affairs programmes. Voiced by broadcasting royalty Richard Dimbleby which gave the segment a believable air, it reported on a Swiss family harvesting spaghetti from a tree. Spaghetti wasn’t the store cupboard staple it is today – in fact it was quite the exotic delicacy – and hundreds of people called in to the BBC to enquire about spaghetti cultivation and where they could buy the trees.

Years later, CNN called the prank ‘the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled.

In 1980, the BBC also reported that the face of Big Ben would be turned into a digital clock and the first people to call in would win the hands. This one didn’t go down so well and it was reported that the Beeb spent weeks apologising for offending the nation!

Typeface Trickery

In the late 1970s, The Guardian newspaper published a travel guide to the tropical republic of San Seriffe, made up of a font-astic pair of islands called Lower Caisse and Upper Caisse, located in the Indian Ocean and shaped like a semicolon. Towns included Thirty Point, Gill Sands, and Garamondo!

Baseball, Bells & Burgers

Over Stateside, they’re just as creative in creating a classic story behind April Fools’ Day.

For the April 1, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated, journalist George Plimpton created the story of a fictional pitcher for the New York Mets called Siddhartha ‘Sidd’ Finch who could throw a baseball at a scarcely believable 168 mph, or 270 km/h, who only wore one shoe – a heavy boot – and played the French Horn.

The first letter of each word of the article’s introduction spelled out ‘Happy April Fools’ Day!’

Continuing the tradition, in 1996, fast-food chain Taco Bell claimed they had bought Philadelphia’s famous Liberty Bell and would rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. Two years later, Burger King announced a ‘left-handed Whopper’ which became a much-requested menu item!

The Last Laugh: The Joy of April Fools' Day

Classic April Fools' Day joke (Credit: nito100 via Getty Images)

From the transformation of the calendar that left some foolishly clinging to old dates, to the ancient festivities that embraced upheaval and laughter as spring breathed new life into the world, the history behind April Fools’ Day is as multifaceted as the pranks it inspires.

The theories – ranging from Chaucer’s literary jests to a mock Pope – highlight the enduring need to find levity in the mundane, to challenge the status quo through humour, and to celebrate the unexpectedly funny twists in the fabric of our daily lives.


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