It's a time-honored tradition. One of those things that simply "is," like candles on a birthday cake or the playground game "tag." Who hasn't either pulled a prank, or had a prank pulled at their expense on April Fools' Day?
But have you ever stopped to ask why it is that so many of us go out of our way to make each other laugh on this particular day each year? As it turns out, the answer to that question is pretty simple: Nobody really knows.
Some scholars point to "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's 1392 masterwork "The Canterbury Tales" as the first instance where "fooling" someone and "April 1" are mentioned together. In this story, the cock Chauntecler falls for the tricks of a fox, and as a consequence, is almost eaten. According to the text, here is the day that the tale occurs:
When that the monthe in which the world bigan / That highte March, whan God first maked man, / Was complet, and passed were also / Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two
Critics argue that it is unclear from the passage whether Chaucer is referring to April 1 (32 days after the start of March) or May 2 (32 days after the end of March).
The most popular origin theory centers on 16th century France. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII updated the Julian calendar and shifted the legal beginning of the year from late March (vernal equinox) to January 1 (just after the winter solstice). At the time in France, New Year celebrations would last for days, culminating on April 1. When France adopted the Pope's new calendar, people in cities like Paris were aware of the change, but way out in the towns and countryside, they didn't get the memo. Over time, these backward, rural folks who continued to celebrate the New Year on April 1 became known as "April Fools." It's a great story, but probably not quite true.
In all likelihood, April Fools' Day did grow out of one or more festivals celebrating around the vernal equinox, like the Roman festival of Hilaria—a day of joy marked by games, amusements and masquerades.
Some scholars point out that April Fools' Day could be much older. The 13th day of the Persian new year is called Sizdah Beda, and falls on or around April 1 each year. As part of the festivities, some Iranians pull pranks on each other — a tradition that could go back more than 2,500 years.
Whatever it's beginnings, April Fools' Day is clearly a holiday that resonates with people, regardless of geography. Today, it's celebrated across the globe—from right here in America to Europe, from India to South Korea. Not surprisingly, some places have a unique local twist on the reverie. Here are just a few:
While there is no shortage of memorable April Fools' Day pranks—from Taco Bell announcing they were going to purchase the Liberty Bell to a 1985 Sports Illustrated article profiling a pitcher named Sidd Finch who learned to pitch 168 miles per hour (in a Tibetan monastery!)—there has been no better purveyor of April Fools' hoaxes than the BBC. Through the years they have pulled some epic hoaxes. Here are two of our absolute favorites: