According to Wikipedia, April Fools’ Day is “an annual custom on April 1, consisting of practical jokes and hoaxes.”  April Fools’ Day is not a public holiday in any nation, but it is commonly observed around the world.

Some historians suggest the basis of the April Fools’ tradition was the end of the old calendar in Europe and the 1582 shift to the new Gregorian calendar.  While April 1 had been the traditional first day of the year, the Gregorian calendar made January 1 the first day.  Many Europeans were slow to learn about or accept the change and continued to celebrate New Years Day on April 1.  Their neighbors sometimes made fun of these “traditionalists, sending them on fool’s errands or trying to trick them into believing something false” (infoplease.com).

Other researchers dispute this explanation, citing April Fools’ practices earlier than 1582.  The tradition of setting aside a day for playing harmless tricks on one’s neighbors goes back a long way in history.  The Romans, Jews, and Hindus all celebrated the vernal equinox and the approach of spring with similar practices.  The Raleigh News & Observer edition of 4/2/1920 said that, “the chief amusement seems to have been that of fooling people and sending them on fruitless errands.”

Some explanations are themselves hoaxes.  A Boston University professor traced the origins back to Roman Emperor Constantine making his jester “king for a day.”  The jester issued an edict mandating absurdity one day a year, the professor said.  In 1983, many newspapers ran the Associated Press article; “it took a couple of weeks for the AP to realize that they had been victims of an April Fools’ joke themselves.”

French children celebrate April 1 by taping pictures of fish on schoolmates’ backs, mocking the fish who unwisely takes the bait, and “crying ‘Poisson d’Avril’ or ‘April Fish’ when the prank is discovered.”  The 1920 News & Observer article says April Fools’ Day was long observed in Scotland as “Hunt-the-Gowk Day” – a gowk being a cuckoo bird.  Pranksters sent the unsuspecting “gowk” to deliver an important letter to a neighbor, who was instructed in the letter to send the gowk on to another neighbor, and then on to the next until the victim realized he’d been fooled.  The Southern American tradition of snipe hunting may have originated from this trickery.

  • In 1915, a French WWI pilot dropped a “bomb” behind German lines; it was actually a football with a note that said “April Fool!”
  • In 1957, BBC TV ran a feature about Swiss spaghetti trees producing a bumper crop due to elimination of the spaghetti weevil.
  • In 1989, Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines mocked up a flying saucer that caused an uproar in Surrey, England.
  • In 2015, Cottonelle announced it was introducing left-handed toilet paper.

Whether you prank your friends with an airhorn, short-sheet their beds, change the ringtones on their phones, or just send them on some “wild goose chase,” have a good time on April Fools’ Day.

Next week, the Mitchell County Historical Society will submit a Looking Back feature about Mitchell County once being the home of the largest factory in the United States making rubber chickens!

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