April the first stands mark'd by custom's rules,
A day for being, and for making fools: —
But, pray, what custom, or what rule supplies
A day for making, or for being — wise?
~ Rev. Samuel Bishop, 1796
Q: What Is April Fools' Day?
A: An observance which takes place in western countries on April first, traditionally known as April Fools' Day or All Fools' Day (Cf. Poisson d'Avril — "April Fish" — in France), during which merriment is supposed to reign and pranks, practical jokes, and hoaxes are socially sanctioned. Customary practices range from simple tricks played on friends, family, and coworkers to elaborate media hoaxes concocted for mass consumption.
See also: Urban Legends With a Punch Line
Theory of origin
The origins of April Fools' Day are obscure. The most commonly cited theory holds that it dates from about 1582, the year France adopted the Gregorian Calendar, which shifted the observance of New Year's Day from the end of March (around the time of the vernal equinox) to the first of January.
According to popular lore, some folks, out of ignorance, stubbornness, or both, continued to ring in the New Year on April first and were made the butt of jokes and pranks on account of their foolishness. This became an annual tradition which ultimately spread throughout Europe and other parts of the world.
However, the earliest known historical reference to April Fools' Day occurs in a Dutch poem published in 1561, which predates the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by some 21 years.
Another weakness of the calendar-change theory is that it doesn't account for a historical record replete with traditions linking this time of year to merriment and tomfoolery dating all the way back to antiquity, and not just in the west.
The ancient Romans, for example, celebrated a festival on March 25 called Hilaria, marking the occasion with masquerades and "general good cheer."
Holi, the Hindu "festival of colors" observed in early March with "general merrymaking" and the "loosening of social norms," is at least as old.
The Jewish festival of Purim has a long history, as well. Coinciding with the advent of spring, it's celebrated annually with costume-wearing, carnivals, and pranks.
It's not unreasonable to suppose that the calendrical changes of the 16th and 17th centuries served more as an excuse to codify a general spirit of mirth already associated with the season than as the sole inspiration for a pranksters' holiday.
Notable April Fools' Day pranks and hoaxes
One of the great media hoaxes of all time was perpetrated on April 1, 1957 by the BBC, which reported on its news program Panorama that Switzerland was experiencing a bumper spaghetti harvest that year thanks to favorable weather and the elimination of the dread "spaghetti weevil." Staged video footage showing happy peasants plucking strands of pasta from tall trees was so convincing that many viewers actually called the network to ask how they could grow their own.
On April 1, 1976 famed British astronomer and radio presenter Patrick Moore announced over the BBC that a rare alignment of the planets Pluto and Jupiter would occur at exactly 9:47 a.m. during which the effects of gravity would be nullified and everyone on earth would feel weightless for a brief moment. "At 9:47, Moore declared, 'Jump now!'" writes Alex Boese of the Museum of Hoaxes. "A minute passed, and then the BBC switchboard lit up with dozens of people calling in to report that the experiment had worked!" But it was all a complete prank, of course, one of the most famous in history.
Some of the best-known pranks in more recent years have been mounted by advertising agencies. In 1996, Taco Bell ran a full-page ad in the New York Times announcing it had purchased the Liberty Bell and would rename it the "Taco Liberty Bell." Burger King pulled off a similar prank in 1998, announcing the rollout of its "Left-Handed Whopper" supposedly designed so that condiments would drip from the right side of the burger rather than the left.
On the Internet, hoaxes are such standard fare that April Fools' Day is barely distinguishable from any other, though a few notable pranks stand out and tend to be reposted year after year — e.g., a 1996-vintage announcement to the effect that every computer connected to the World Wide Web must be turned off and disconnected for Internet Cleaning Day, a 24-hour period during which useless "flotsam and jetsam" are flushed from the system.
Last updated 03/31/14