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Why do we prank each other on April Fools' Day? Here's how it started

The complicated and hilarious history of the holiday.

Money may not grow on trees, but spaghetti sure does, at least according to one of the most famous April Fools’ Day pranks and hoaxes of all time.

Back on April 1, 1957, Britain’s news show Panorama soberly informed viewers about a spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The pasta was thriving both due to a mild winter and, of course, thanks to the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” Delivering the news was none other than Britain’s hugely respected Richard Dimbleby, who was the BBC’s first war correspondent, and then its leading TV news commentator. The news was greeted with deep enthusiasm because, after all, “for those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”

It’s all part of the annual tradition of marking the beginning of April with April Fools’ Day, when those so inclined prank others in their lives by announcing fake marriages, pregnancies, or the purported purchase of the Liberty Bell by Taco Bell in 1996. You might wonder how all this foolishness got started. What is the origin of April Fools' Day, and why do we celebrate?

Related: Family-friendly April Fools' Day pranks for kids

 

“People glom on to it because it’s hilarious and fun. Yes there have been a lot of nasty jokes played over the years and for some people it’s a way to be malicious to others. At the same time, we all have an innate desire to be mischievous. It’s part of our human nature. April Fools’ Day gives a way to play a prank on someone or a joke without doing too much harm,” says Rob Weiner, pop culture librarian at Texas Tech University. 

April Fools' Day origins

The origins of April Fool’s Day are rather more murky than the day itself. According to the experts at the Museum of Hoaxes, which was established in 1997 to explore “deception, mischief, and misinformation,” there’s no clear-cut or specific origin of the day. But theories abound. 

Per the Museum of Hoaxes, “The most popular theory about the origin of April Fool’s Day involves the French calendar reform of the sixteenth century.”

In 1564, France changed its calendar, and moved the start of the year from March to January 1, where it sits today. Those stalwarts who refused to embrace the change and still followed the old calendar had pranks played on them between March 15 and April 1. There’s another theory (because of course there is): Italian followers of the cult of Cybele celebrated the festival Hilaria at the end of the March and of course, that meant dressing up and making fun of other folks. 

Britain changed its calendar in 1752, which meant that January 1 marked the beginning of the year. And so it makes sense that the Brits embraced April Fools’ Day in the 18th century, which meant people were sent on phony errands and played pranks like — well, you can imagine. Oh but wait, there’s more. According to History.com, some muse that April Fools’ Day traces its origins to the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Why? Because Mother Nature is a prickly and surprising creature, and tricks you into believing that warmer temps are here — right before that freak snow storm hits in mid-April.  

“What strikes me is the fact that you’ve got these traditions in Ireland, in Scotland, in France. It’s an official holiday in the Ukraine. How did the concept of April Fools’ expand to these different countries? That’s the true mystery,” says Weiner. “My speculation is that the concept of there being a day for fools and pranks — it was transmitted orally. And then it became codified in regular popular culture that the first of April was the day of fools. It’s one of those weird quirks of history that has transcended cultural boundaries.”

But pinning tails on people or covering the toilet with clear saran wrap doesn’t begin to compare to the left-handed Whopper announced by Burger King in 1998. Or the new pizza-flavored seltzer you could ostensibly buy from Bud Light last year, part of a growing tradition of pranks by food brands. April Fools! 

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