April Fool’s Day is believed to have got its start thanks to a pope changing his self-named calendar, leaving some people to celebrate the new year on the wrong day and being called fools.
The most common theory about the earliest April Fools’ celebrations goes like this: In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII issued a papal bull decreeing a new standard calendar for Christian Europe that would take his name and centuries later become the international standard in the 21st century.
Prior to the 15th century, Europe’s nations and city states operated using the Julian calendar.
The Gregorian calendar moved the date of the new year from April 1 to January 1, among other changes.
Catholic monarchies were naturally its earliest adopters, though Protestant nations later followed suit.
Given the nature of the reform, both in terms of communicating such a fundamental change to a large population and dealing with critics of the new calendar, some Europeans continued to celebrate the new year between March 25 and April 1.
April fools were those who still celebrated the holiday in the spring, and were the subject of pranks and ridicule by those who observed the new year months ago.
Jokes played on them included having paper fish placed on their backs and being called poisson d’avril, or April Fish, which was said to refer to a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.
It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the calendrical changes of the 16th and 17th centuries served more as an excuse to codify a general spirit of mirth already associated with the season than as the sole inspiration for a pranksters’ holiday.
In the 18th century in Scotland, April Fool’s Day became a two-day event, with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk meaning cuckoo bird, a symbol for a fool) and followed by Tailie Day, in which fake tails or “kick me” signs were pinned on people’s backs.
That’s just one theory for the origin of the holiday, however.
HowStuffWorks.com says that other occasions resembling April Fools’ Day preceded the more contemporary incarnation by centuries.
Ancient Romans held a festival known as Hilaria. The occasion was used to celebrate the resurrection of the god Attis.
Hilaria was celebrated in Rome near the end of March where people dressed up in disguises.
Hilaria, of course, resembles the word hilarity in English.
The modern equivalent of Hilaria is called Roman Laughing Day.
Other non-Western cultures have their own traditions similar to April Fools’ Day as well.
In India, Holi, a colorful Hindi festival that frequently entices non-Hindi participants to join in, often is celebrated by people playing jokes and throwing colorful dyes on each other.
Persian culture also has a holiday with a similar theme, known as Sizdahbedar.
On this day, which typically coincides with April Fools’ Day itself, Iranians play pranks on one another.
The Jewish festival of Purim has a long history, as well.
Coinciding with the advent of spring, it’s celebrated annually with costume-wearing, carnivals, and pranks.
In the UK and countries to whom Brits have passed on their way of celebrating April Fool’s Day, the japes traditionally cease at midday.
According to tradition, if you prank someone after 12 p.m., then you become the fool.
Or April Fool’s could be tied to the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature can fool us with changing, unpredictable weather, which seems to be happening already in many places in Canada.
With files from history.com, discovery.com, urbanlegends.com