How April Fools’ Day Got Started

How April Fools’ Day Got Started

The Meaning and Origin of April Fools’ Day

The origin of April Fools’ Day has stumped historians for centuries and to this day there is not a definitive answer.  In fact, an article written in 1708 for Britain’s Apollo Magazine asks the same question.

Quit Mucking With The Date

The prevailing idea involves the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, but it is based entirely on conjecture and not evidence.

According to legend, sometime in the 8th century BCE, Romulus declared the new year began with the Vernal Equinox.

Be it truth or myth, Julius Caesar came along in 46 B.C.E. and moved the date of the new year to January 1 with the introduction of the Julian calendar.

But there was a problem. The Julian calendar did not reflect the actual time it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun. It assumes 1 year is equal to 365.25 days, but it is actually 11 minutes less. Eleven minutes doesn’t seem like a big deal, but over a period of roughly 1600 years those minutes add up to several days.

Religion Wars

By the time Pope Gregory XIII came into power in 1572, the calendar was a full 10 days off from the Vernal Equinox and Winter Solstice time. Pope Gregory was particularly concerned that Easter day was moving further and further away from the Vernal Equinox.

Meanwhile, sometime in the medieval years, religious officials decided that aligning the year with significant events in Jesus’ life was the way to account for the year (i.e. If Jesus’ birthday was December 25, the new year began nine months earlier with the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25).

April Fool's Day - Annunciation Hajdudorog

Artist depiction of the Annunication.

In February 1582 Pope Gregory XIII issued the Inter Gravissimas, an official decree declaring the adoption of a new calendar – the Gregorian calendar.  To realign Easter with the Vernal Equinox, the decree dropped October 5 – October 14 from the 1582 calendar and moved the new year start date back to January 1.

However, by this time Europe was full swing into the Protestant Reformation movement and saw this edict as a form of oppression from the Catholic church. Therefore, most of Europe continued celebrating the New Year on March 25, but it was moved to April 1 to allow for more focus on the feast of the resurrection.

Pope Gregory XIII

Pope Gregory XIII

Slower Than Snail Mail

In addition to religious allegiance and holy days alignment confusion, it could take years for word to reach some rural towns and lack of ubiquitous media reminders made it easy to forget new laws.

It is thought those who continued celebrating the new year on April 1, from lack of knowledge, plain forgetfulness or indignation, were called “April fools”.

Given the bad blood among Europe’s superpower countries, it can be presumed Catholic dominated Spain and France did not hesitate to call Protestant dominated England a variety of names; least of all “fools”.

These “fools” were mocked for their gullibleness with pranks such as signs placed on their backs, sent on fool’s errands or tricking them into believing something that is untrue.

Come Into Its Own

Eventually, Protestant Europe did come around. English officials decided to adopt the Gregorian calendar for use in England (and therefore its colonies) in May 1752. But in the roughly 100 years of lighthearted tomfoolery, April Fools (or All Fools) Day had become its own special day of practical jokes.

The earliest (uncontested) date of an April Fools day joke appearing in print was in the mid-1600’s. It is thought other examples appear sooner as early as the late 14th century, but there are debates about its ties with April 1.

Spring Hazing

Many cultures have similar festivals and they often involve some form of social mayhem. Western culture celebrations involve lying, cheating, or pranking our friends and loved ones for one day while other cultures throw colored powder and water on one another, trade roles (i.e. servants become masters) or dress up in costumes.

Anthropologists consider these playful events “renewal festival” welcoming the return of Spring and the end of the cold and dark days.

Trust No One

While the antics on April Fools’ Day and others like it may be lighthearted ways to welcome Spring, it is advisable to treat these days like the days surrounding the vernal equinox and be prepared for anything.

1931 - April Fools' Day - Kick Me Prank

1931 – April Fools’ Day – “Kick Me” Prank


References and Further Reading:
Mikkelson, D. (2000, March 22). April Fools’ Day Origins. Retrieved from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/april-fools39-day-origins/.

Ross, A. (2016, March 31). No Kidding: We Have No Idea How April Fools’ Day Started. Retrieved from http://time.com/4276140/april-fools-day-history/.

How Did April Fools’ Day Begin? Retrieved from https://wonderopolis.org/wonder/how-did-april-fools-day-begin.

Change From Julian to Gregorian Calendar. Retrieved from https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/julian-gregorian-switch.html.

Cohen, Jennie. (2012, September 13). 6 Things You May Not Know About the Gregorian Calendar. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/6-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-gregorian-calendar.

The Difference Between Julian and Gregorian Calendars. Retrieved from http://vpcalendar.net/Difference-Between-Julian-and-Gregorian-Calendars.html.

(2012). New Year’s. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/new-years.

Worthington, D. (2015, March 31). Origin of April Fools’ Day. Retrieved from https://www.newhistorian.com/origin-of-april-fools-day/3399/.

“Why is April 1 a day to celebrate foolishness?” 30 March 2001. HowStuffWorks.com. 1 April 2018

Mann, S. (2016, September 1). What Is a Papal Bull? Retrieved from https://www.osv.com/Magazines/TheCatholicAnswer/Article/TabId/652/ArtMID/13618/ArticleID/20552/What-Is-a-Papal-Bull.aspx.

Staff, Findingdulcinea. “On This Day: In 1582, October 5 Never Happened.” FindingDulcinea. 1 Apr. 2018. Web. 1 Apr. 2018.

Spencer, Bill. (1999, November 28). Inter Gravissimas. Retrieved from http://www.bluewaterarts.com/calendar/NewInterGravissimas.htm.

Cavendish, Richard (2002, September). The Gregorian Calendar Adopted in England. Retrieved from https://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/gregorian-calendar-adopted-england.

April Fool’s Day in the 1600s. Retrieved from http://hoaxes.org/af_database/year/category/1600aprilfools/.

Kaplan, S. (2016, March 31). A brief, totally sincere history of April Fools’ Day. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/03/31/a-brief-totally-sincere-history-of-april-fools-day/?utm_term=.ab04201687ae.

Specktor, B. The Puzzling Mystery Behind How April Fool’s Day Got Started. Retrieved from https://www.rd.com/culture/origin-of-april-fools-day/.

The Origin of April Fool’s Day. Retrieved from http://hoaxes.org/af_database/permalink/origin_of_april_fools_day.

April Fools’ Day. (n.d.) Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. (2010). Retrieved April 1 2018 from https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/April+Fools%27+Day.

David Johnson and Shmuel Ross “April Fools’ Day: Origin and History.” Infoplease.
© 2000-2017 Sandbox Networks, Inc., publishing as Infoplease. 1 Apr. 2018.

Hodgkin, R. ‘Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?’. Retrieved from https://doinghistoryinpublic.org/2017/04/04/whence-proceeds-the-custom-of-making-april-fools/.

The Official April Fools’ Day FAQ. Retrieved from http://hoaxes.org/aprilfool/faq.


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