A staple quasi-holiday in Western culture, April Fools’ Day has been long regarded by most with either excitement or begrudging amusement. Every year on April 1st, April Fools’ Day commences in a series of practical jokes or hoaxes that end with the prankers shouting, “April Fools!” at their unfortunate victims. The jokes and their victims are referred to as “April Fools”. A common (though some say redundant) one is to share a piece of shocking, absurd, or even terrible news, and then exclaim, “April Fools!” amid the victim’s apparent horror or confusion. Even some newspapers or other published media reports have been known to take part in the mayhem by publishing fake stories, which are revealed as hoaxes the next day in smaller print. Despite some controversy surrounding the holiday, it’s usually all in good fun.
April Fools’ Day: An International History of Hoaxes
Although April Fools’ Day rose to popularity in the 19th century, it is not a public holiday in any country. But it does have an intriguing history that most don’t know about. In 1508, French poet Eloy d’ Amerval referred to a poisson d’avril (meaning April fool, Fish of April). This is possibly the first known reference to the April Fools’ celebration in France. It has been postulated that April Fools’ Day came into fruition because of a Middle Age-old disagreement over the date of New Year’s Eve and when it should be celebrated. In the Middle Ages, many European towns celebrated New Year’s Day on March 25th. In some parts of France, this New Year holiday had a longer duration and ended on April 1st. It’s been suggested in some prominent literature that those who controversially celebrated New Year’s Eve on Jan 1st created April Fools’ Day to make fun of those who celebrated it in the spring. Only in 1564 did France officially start celebrating New Year’s Eve on January 1st.
The history of April Fools’ Day is quite a different story in the Netherlands. There its origin is often linked to the Dutch victory at Brielle in 1572, where the Spanish Duke Alvarez de Toledo was famously defeated. A well-known Dutch proverb can be translated to: “On the 1st of April, Alva lost his glasses”. For whatever reason, “glasses” serve as a metaphor for Brielle in this proverb. The association between April Fools’ Day and the Dutch victory is unclear, but it is nonetheless a popular one in the Netherlands, where some feel that the pranks played on April 1st reflect a certain braggadocio surrounding the defeat of the Spanish Duke.
The history and origin of April Fools’ Day really is a mystery dating back further than you might expect. One of the earliest references to the unofficial holiday can be found in The Canterbury Tales of 1392, in which April 1st is associated with foolishness. In ancient times, court jesters were considered to be wise men with a canny ability to use humor to put situations into perspective. Some predecessors of April Fools’ Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria and the Medieval Feast of Fools.
The first British reference to April Fools’ Day came when John Aubrey referred to the celebration as “Fooles holy day” in 1686. On April 1st, 1698, several people were fooled into entering the Tower of London to “see the Lions washed”. In the UK, practical jokes played on April 1st have a similar, though slightly more specific formula: A joke is revealed by shouting “April fool!” at the recipient, who is then dubbed the “April fool”. Interestingly, the joking stops by midday in the UK, and is not acceptable past noon. Thus, people who plays a joke after that time is considered “April fools” themselves!
In Ireland, April Fools’ Day was a tradition in which the victim was entrusted with an “important letter” to be given to a named recipient. That person would then ask the victim to deliver the letter to someone else, and it would go on and on all day! When the contents of the letter were finally opened, they read, “send the fool further”.
Do you know that Poland takes this day of jokes quite seriously? In Poland, April Fools’ Day is known as prima aprilis, and is a centuries-long tradition in which elaborate hoaxes are collectively prepared by people and media. Media outlets often play an active role in hyping up the believability of jokes by making them appear more credible. Even public institutions usually get in on several mass jests! In Poland, April 1st has a general air of mischief and merriment, and serious activities are typically avoided. The effect is that generally every word spoken on the holiday could be a lie (the ensuing confusion sounds like no joke to us, but we have to admit it sounds fun).
Some experts believe that April Fools’ Day may have originated in Germany. According to an old lore, a man named Gabriel Hoffmann lived in Darmstadt in the 1860s. Allegedly, he arranged a fake meeting for lawmakers on April 1st, and the prank went down in history. As in Poland, modern day Germany celebrates April Fools’ Day by playing pranks until noon. In Poland, playing April Fools’ pranks after noon is in poor taste, but in Germany it’s actually considered a harbinger of bad luck.
In Nordic countries, most news media outlets can be counted on to publish exactly one false story on April 1st. In Italy, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and certain areas in Switzerland and Canada, it is tradition to attach a paper fish to a victim’s back without being noticed! Many news outlets also spread fake news on April 1st in these countries. The false stories sometimes include a reference to a fish as a clue the fact that it is an April Fools’ Day joke. The fish reference is a mystery to us, but it really is a long-standing European tradition. Many Spanish-speaking and some Middle Eastern countries have their own versions of April Fools’ Day.
In Scotland, April 1st is known as Huntigowk Day. The Scottish word “gowk” translates to “cuckoo” or “foolish individual”.
In Portugal, the fool’s holiday is celebrated on the Sunday and Monday before Lent. Yes, you heard right. The Portuguese celebration is two days long. Supposedly, this is because the day is traditionally spent not just playing pranks, but throwing flour on each other. Guess there’s just not enough time in one day for that!
India’s version of April Fools’ Day happens on March 31st. It’s called Holi and is a designated day for jokes. It also involves the wearing of brightly-colored face and body paint to welcome spring, which we think adds zest and meaning to the day. It also involves the throwing of colored powder onto others in jest, which is as difficult to understand as some U.S. practices on April Fools’ Day. But whatever the point of the holiday, it’s certainly not to make sense. This appears to be true across the nations.
Indian cinema also references April Fools’ Day. The 1964 Bollywood movie April Fool was a hit in its heyday.
Iranians celebrate their version of this quirky holiday on the 13th Day of the Persian New Year, or the 1st or 2nd of April. Like in other cultures, Iranians play pranks on each other throughout the day. But there’s one marked difference between their hijinx and that of other nations: At the end of the day, they make sure to apologize for the pranks they played in a nod to respect.
Famous April Fools and Positive Reception of April Fools’ Day
In a famous prank dating back to 1957, the BBC broadcast a film in their Panorama current affairs series that supposedly showed Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti; it was called Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. Believe it or not, the Swiss BBC were later inundated with (yes, serious) inquiries about how to purchase a spaghetti plant! On the next day’s news, the BBC declared the film a hoax.
Last year on April 1st, Yahoo published a story announcing that Trader Joe’s was closing their doors. Trader Joe’s has a rather loyal fanbase, and understandably many people were in a panic. The story featured an alleged quote from the company CEO, stating that “there isn’t enough cookie butter in the world to pave the world ahead”. Not surprisingly, Trader Joe’s soon came forward to deny the ludicrous claims.
In 1996, Taco Bell announced that they had purchased the Liberty Bell, and were effectively renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell.
There is no question that April Fools’ Day- and some of its premier practical jokes- has gone down in history. But is that a positive or a negative? It all depends on who you ask. Although it’s widely celebrated and the spirit of the holiday is meant to be fun and harmless, the practice of April Fools’ Day pranks and hoaxes is controversial. Actually, there were critics who strongly opposed even the absurd 1957 featured film about harvesting spaghetti plants; some thought of it as a terrible joke played on the public even though the idea of plants that directly grow linguini pasta is hard to wrap our heads around.
A positive view of April Fools’ Day is that that laughter promotes good health by reducing stress relief and therefore strain on the heart.(In theory, these benefits would mean a lot more if humor was prioritized as a part of daily life rather than just on a holiday- but hey, one day of laughter has the potential to help more than it hurts). Some say a day devoted to humor has psychological benefits in a bustling, troubled world where bad news travels faster than good news- and sells better, too.
The negative perspective of April Fools’ Day describes its inspired pranks as annoying or manipulative at best, and creepy, mean-spirited, or harmful at worst. Some media critics have also pointed out that the holiday’s propensity toward media hoaxes runs the risk that genuine news orders or warnings will be misinterpreted as a joke and disregarded. Google is often a big player on April Fools’ Day. In 2004 they even went so far as to announce the launch of Gmail with 1-gigabyte inboxes. Now, this was an era in which all webmail services offered 4-megabytes or less, and while many people dismissed the announcement as a joke, some were quite confused.
Did this year’s Google prank go a step too far? The tech giant’s April Fool revealed the Mic Drop button for Gmail, which essentially mutes email threads and sends a final response with a GIF of a minion from “Despicable Me”. Several Gmail users complained that they mistakenly clicked the button when sending important work emails. Side note: In case you were wondering, the Google Maps app cannot, and never could, turn into a functional game of Ms. Pac Man.
Duolingo, a language-learning service, announced the arrival of their most cutting edge product yet: A pillow that teaches you new languages in your sleep for just $99. You really can’t beat that, can you? The company advertised the product on their website with a guarantee: “It’s science.” Duolingo is also not, in fact, offering an international emoji course.
Speaking of cutting edge breakthroughs, Lexus announced a brand new feature in recent years: a variable load-coupling rear-orientation driver’s seat, or V-LCRO for short. Supposedly, it works best when you wear a special driver’s suit that comes with adhesive patches on the back. Now there’s a way to wish their customer’s safe travels.
Much to our collective relief, Tinder’s 2017 promise of a “live date” via Facebook was a hoax. More to our chagrin, “Apocalypse Mingle” does not exist (even in San Francisco), and will not match you with a romantic partner based on how well you’d survive the End of Times together. Have you heard of a relationship app called Hinge? Neither have we, but FYI, it isn’t launching a “parental controls” feature as claimed on April 1st, 2017.
Arguments Against April Fools’ Day
Critics argue that even hoaxes like these, which are generally harmless, have the potential to cause confusion, spread misinformation, and waste resources. Hoaxes of a more serious nature, such as those that concern people in danger, can have legal or commercial ramifications.
Here’s a shocker: April Fools’ Day has also been known to raise already heightened political tensions. A 2010 parody posted on a website created by the Republican Senatorial Committee certainly garnered the national attention it intended to. In the parody, an actor portraying Obama declared himself to be “the best president of our time” with “the best results of any president, ever.” The parody touched on several major political issues at the time, and essentially accused President Obama of hypocrisy for allowing the group Organizing for Action to sell access to them.
While April Fools’ Day may be perfectly fine in moderation, there are some notable examples of genuine news on April first mistaken as a hoax. On April 1st, 1946, warnings about the Aleutian Island earthquake’s tsunami that killed 165 people in Hawaii and Alaska were mistaken for a hoax. News that the comedian Mitch Hedberg had died on March 29th, 2005 was initially believed to be a hoax, but was actually true. On April 1st, 2009, many did mistook news that the long running soap opera Guiding Light was being cancelled for a hoax. (Unfortunately for die-hard soap fans, it turned out to be true).
Celebrate April Fools’ Day
In case you are one of the fools who celebrate April Fools’ Day (pun intended), we’ve compiled a list of fun (but entirely harmless!) practical jokes. We can say with a fair amount of certainty that some of these are kid-tested (although not all of them mother-approved). Some of them are simple, like taking the batteries out of home remotes or even replacing them with a silly note that says, “April Fools!”
An option for the slightly more creatively inclined involves a dose of kitchen-savviness. If you’ve never coated an onion in caramel or chocolate and then presented it to someone as a “candy apple”, maybe you should. It can be perversely rewarding to watch someone take a hearty bite and get a not-so-sweet surprise. A slightly more sophisticated (by April Fools’ Day standards) practical joke involves a little more precision, but may be worth the effort. Have you ever tried carving a small hole into an apple and inserting a gummy worm into it? Neither have we, but if you’re into as into April Fools’ Day as many people obviously are, it’s something to consider. The real perk of these silly practical jokes is that they’re not just for kids- parents might just as readily enjoy watching their kids bite into a delicious apple with a surprise center.
Some more adult-centered April Fools’ Day activities are scattered throughout pretty much every region that celebrates it. In New York City and New Jersey alone, there are joke competitions, an April Fools’ Day Weekend Comedy Show and Day Party, a 34th Annual April Fools’ Day parade in New York City, and more. In L.A., there’s a scary movie night in a haunted zoo for grown-up thrill seekers. San Francisco’s St. Stupid’s Day Parade is just what it sounds like: a parade that celebrates stupidity, and with relish. The march proceeds from the Transamerica Pyramid to Washington Square Park, and attendees are encouraged to dress in something silly. Some attendees even bring tokens of their blunders from the past year, effectively (and good-naturedly, we might add) celebrating their stupidity. Let’s be real, we all have some where that came from, and laughing at ourselves can be fun.
Many people go as far as to throw themed parties on or around April Fools’ Day. A warning to all those planning to attend one this year: Party perks may include whoopee cushions underneath seating (original, we know, but it’s apparently still a thing). People have also tried opaque perfume bottles filled with onion juice or other less than desirable clear substances. Believe it or not, more than one website has proposed this same killer idea: Sometime during the party, ask a conspiratorial friend or neighbor to don a mask and ring the doorbell. When an unlucky party-goer answers the door, let the masked friend or neighbor attack him or her with an artificial knife whose blade pushes inside as soon as it touches something. (Yeah, we know, a bit much, and risking a run-in with the police is not traditionally part of the April Fools’ celebration).
For something a little less, well, intrusive, try replacing guests’ car keys with another set that looks the same but is ineffective. For the friends who treat their cars like their children (every party has at least one), invest in a fake car scratch or broken glass tattoo that signals serious damage to the unsuspecting eye.
Whatever your inclination, April Fools’ Day is hard to ignore. If you’re firmly against it, the best course of action is probably to steer clear of known pranksters and be on guard for unpleasant surprises! If you love the holiday, make the most of it by participating in any of the aforementioned activities, or one of a million more. (For further April Fools’ inspiration, a simple Google search will do the trick). But- and this is the most important thing, really- know your audience! That, and stay safe, but we hope that went without saying. Happy Almost April Fools’ Day!