No joke! The weird and wonderful origins of April Fool's Day

Person dressed as a golden court jester posing between pillars
It's widely believed that April Fool's day evolved from the Ancient Roman festival of Hilaria | Image: Shutterstock

To many of us reading this, the phrase ‘April Fool's Day’ will instil fear and dread in our childhood selves. A classmate, usually sitting at the back, was bound to re-imagine the day as a green light to unleash a thoughtless, practical joke at someone else’s expense, and this year it might just be your turn.

There were some basic rules, though. After the ‘joke’ had been delivered, the prankster had to yell out ‘April Fool!’ at the victim, probably whilst pointing and laughing with their cronies. However, it was essential the gag was dropped before midday, or the person undertaking the joyless lark would themselves be crowned the ‘April Fool’. Every kid knew the desperate minutes leading to 12 pm on 1st April were always the darkest before the dawn. I say, ‘every kid’, some of us still have to endure this nightmare as adults in colleges, universities, offices. Even in our own home…

Where does this enforced buffoonery have its origins and is it confined to just one corner of the world, or does everyone have to suffer the consequences of what should just be another perfectly acceptable spring morning?

The likely candidate for the first April Fool’s Day may lie at the feet of those perennial pranksters, the Romans. Renowned for their sense of humour (for example boiling people alive, feeding slaves to dogs, and, of course, rampant crucifixion) the Hilaria was a day of sanctioned merriment held on 25th March as part of the Festival of Cybele. It was also supposed to be celebrated on 3rd November, but thankfully everyone seems to have forgotten about that one.

The Hilaria was held in honour of Attis, the ancient god of vegetation and partner of Cybele, aka the great Mother of the Gods. As punishment for infidelity, Cybele drove Attis mad to such a degree he castrated himself and died. Fortunately, he was resurrected when Agdistis repented for her actions The Hilaria is held to celebrate Attis and his re-birth, which we can read as a metaphor for spring.

The festival was characterised by some fasting, symbolic tree felling, a spot of mourning, and the ‘Day of Blood’, which featured frenzied flagellation ceremonies and castration rituals. But the following day was the Hilaria, where everyone forgot all about the unpleasantness of the previous 24 hours and simply concentrated on having a great time!

In many ways, April Fool’s Day is just another excuse to celebrate spring, but characterised by prescribed goofing around, rather than delicious Easter Eggs.

But why is one foolish? One theory suggests that the April Fool was the idiot who was surprised by the sudden change in weather, or the nitwit who didn’t acknowledge the modern practice of celebrating the start of the new year on 1st January, instead of Easter, as decreed by Charles XI in 1564.

What is clear, however, is that April Fool’s Day is largely secular, seemingly without any connection to the church, despite attempts to appropriate it. The first known April Fool reference in the UK was penned by John Aubrey in 1586 and called ‘Fooles Holy Day’.

Perhaps the most detailed reference to an established April Fool’s antic can be found in Scotland where it was originally called ‘Huntigowk Day’. As ‘gowk’ was a colloquial word for a cuckoo, we can read it as ‘Huntin-the-fool Day’. The ‘joke’ in this instance is to find a ‘gowk’ to deliver a sealed message (‘dinna laugh, dinna smile, hunt the gowk another mile’) to a third party. The third party reads the message and sends the gowk to someone else with the same message, and so on and so on. The same letter-based prank was used in Ireland, and we can see similar activity in the UK by asking a person, usually a trainee or apprentice, to go and get a ‘long weight’ i.e. ‘a long wait’.

This side-splitting hilarity isn’t just confined to the UK. There may even be a connection to Holi (aka The Festival of Colours), the annual Indian Festival that celebrates spring and the Hindu god Krishna with food, dancing and the liberal throwing around of vibrant, vivid paint powder. The festival, which takes place in mid-March, is also characterised by practical joking and it’s not impossible that this latter aspect was picked up and exported globally.

Closer to home, some Western European countries, including France and Italy, have celebrated 'April Fish' since at least 1508, as cited by composer and poet Eloy d'Amerval. This tradition involves surreptitiously sticking a paper fish onto the back of as many people as possible, before yelling ‘Poisson d’Avril!’ and running off in hysterics, because it’s that funny.

In other parts of Europe, the buffoonery arrives in the form of a fake news item or a public hoax, the Poles take 1st April so (ironically) seriously that genuinely important matters are avoided. For example, the 1st April alliance between Poland and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold in 1683 was backdated to the 31st of March to avoid a clash.