April Fools' Day May Have Originated From an Out-of-Date Calendar

Playing tricks on April 1 is a tradition that dates all the way back to 1517, when Martin Luther nailed a "Kick Me" sign to the church's door. Okay, okay, just kidding. Actually, there are a lot of conflicting stories about the origins of the holiday — some historians blame Pope Gregory XIII, while others say the Romans were the original pranksters.

A Date That Lives in Tomfoolery

The sad fact is that there isn't a clear record of the very first April Fools' Day, although references to such a tradition can be found dating back to the Classical era. Although this time of year is full of joyous holidays from around the world, from Holi to Purim, the whole jokes-and-pranks angle is somehow firmly rooted in the European tradition. Whether you're planning fish-themed tricks for Poisson d'Avril in France, or a Post-It note prank for the classic April Fools' Day, you're taking part in a tradition with some mysterious origins.

One of the most popular explanations of April Fools' Day says the reason for the foolish season is the calendar of Pope Gregory XIII. Back in the 16th century, old Greg decided it was time to fix the calendar that had been used since the days of Julius Caesar, since its leap-year calculation was all misaligned. We still use this so-called Gregorian calendar today, but the initial transition took a little while to embrace — and the longer it took, the more days people would have to catch up on. According to this theory, those who hadn't adopted the new calendar tried celebrating what they believed to be New Year's Day on April 1, earning themselves the unfortunate sobriquet "April Fool."

The first written reference to April Fools' Day comes in 1686, when the chronicler John Aubrey wrote of the "Fooles Holy Day," saying "We observe it on ye first in April ... And so it is kept in Germany everywhere." That's in line with the Gregorian calendar explanation, since the date switch took place about 100 years earlier. But it doesn't explain the fact that jokes and pranks had already been associated with that time of year for much, much longer. For example, in 1561 (about 20 years before Pope Gregory's big announcement), a Flemish poet named Eduard de Dene wrote a jokey piece about a nobleman sending his servant on absurd errands on the first of April. So where'd trope that come from?

Roman Holiday

Just to be clear, the Romans didn't celebrate April Fools' Day. But they did celebrate Hilaria. Every (Julian) year, Rome celebrated a multi-week festival of the goddess Cybele and her grandson/lover Attis. Yeah, like a lot of ancient myths, this story had more incest than "Game of Thrones" — and murder, castration, and resurrection to match. But it all culminated on March 25 in a joyous, prank-filled extravaganza. What's interesting is that Roman calendars considered the spring equinox the beginning of the year, and this ridiculous New Year's celebration has echoes in the Feast of Fools traditions of northern Europe, which also took place on the first day of the year. And remember how those Gregorian April fools supposedly got their name from mistaking the first of April for the first day of the new year? Hmm. Maybe all of the various explanations are tied together in ways we'll never fully unravel.

Even when it isn't April Fools' Day, there's something so enchanting about a well-plotted fake-out. Check out the brand-new book "Hoax: A History of Deception" for 5,000 years of audacious and insidious schemes. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas March 29, 2018

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