Why Do We Play April Fools' Day Pranks? This Tradition Dates Way, Way Back
It's April 1, you've already been duped by at least one Facebook status joyously announcing a fake pregnancy, you're afraid to go anywhere near that innocuous looking box of doughnuts in the office kitchen, and at this point, you kind of just want to throw your hands up and ask the April Fools' Day powers that be one simple question: WHY? Why is this a holiday? Why do we play April Fools' Day pranks? Is it completely necessary to torture each other endlessly for one day of the year pulling practical jokes that wouldn't be funny any other time? You may fall in the "April Fools' Day is stupid, let's do away with it immediately" camp, and I don't blame you, but the history of April Fools' Day is actually long, deep-rooted, and kind of fascinating — and this holiday is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Although nobody seems to be entirely, 100 percent certain about how April Fools' Day came to be, a lot historians believe it might date back to when France first switched over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1582. As you can imagine, this definitely caused some confusion. For one thing, under the Julian calendar, the new year began in April, whereas the Gregorian calendar celebrated the new year in January. And, without helpful things like Twitter, Facebook, or breaking news push notifications, not everyone immediately picked up on the calendar switch memo. So, while the majority of France was celebrating the New Year on Jan. 1, there were a few stragglers who continued to observe it on April 1 much like, I hate to say it, fools.
So what does this have to do with those bothersome pranks that seem to plague your existence today? Well, to revisit France circa 1582, people who still celebrated the New Year in April were called "poisson d’avril," or April fish, because of their gullibility. The name stuck — the first of April is still called Poisson d’Avril in France — and to make matters worse for our poor fish, people began placing paper fish on the backs of those who had their dates wrong. It sounds mean, but that tradition stuck around too. In the days leading up to April Fools' Day, French children put paper fish on the backs of adults when they're not looking.
While no one is totally sure how, exactly, the tradition of playing jokes on people on April Fools' Day became especially popular in the U.K. throughout the late 17th and early 18th centuries. People in Scotland, who loved April Fools' Day so much they turned it into a two-day celebration, started their own spin-off of the Poisson d’Avril prank with Tailie Day, which involved placing early precursors to the popular "kick me" signs on the backs of unsuspecting targets. English newspapers in the late 17th century even reported people being sent to the Tower of London to see "the washing of the lions," a ritual that definitely sounded exciting, but didn't actually exist. Since then, hoaxes have only become more elaborate.
These days, pranks run the gamut from harmless to fury-inducing. Whether you're toying with the idea of giving your Facebook status an April Fools' Day update, or you're looking to go all out hoaxing your roommate into oblivion, just realize that while you may think you are being original, you are actually playing into a centuries-old tradition of practical jokers looking to get a few kicks on unassuming bystanders. And honestly, if you ask me, it's starting to feel a little old.
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