Q: What Is April Fools' Day?:
A: An observance which takes place in many western countries every April 1, traditionally known as April Fools' Day or All Fools' Day (aka Poisson d'Avril
— "April Fish" — in France). It's a day when humor reigns and harmless pranks, practical jokes, and hoaxes are
sanctioned. Customary practices range from simple tricks played on friends, family, and coworkers to elaborate media hoaxes concocted for mass consumption.
Theories of origin:
The origins of April Fools' Day are obscure. The most commonly cited theory holds that it dates from 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 1 and were made the butt of jokes and pranks on account of their foolishness. This became an annual tradition, according to this version of events, which ultimately spread throughout Europe.
A major weakness of the calendar-change theory is that it fails to account for an historical record replete with traditions linking this time of year to merriment and tomfoolery dating all the way back to antiquity.
The 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.
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 frivolity already associated with the advent of spring than as a direct inspiration for April Fools' Day.
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.
Some of the best-known pranks in recent years were 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.