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Mysterious history of April Fools' Day

Bizarre holiday's origin began much earlier than you may think

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello on April Fool's Day, early 1950s Gene LesterGetty Images
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello on April Fool's Day, early 1950s Gene LesterGetty Images

There’s no question that April Fools’ Day is one of the most widely recognized nonreligious holidays in the Western world. Children prank parents, co-workers prank co-workers, and yes, national news outlets still prank their readers. But why? How did April Fools’ Day begin, and how did it become an international phenomenon?

The totally legit, not-pulling-your-leg answer is: Nobody really knows. April Fools’ Day is apparently an ancient enough tradition that the earliest recorded mentions, like the following excerpt from a 1708 letter to Britain’s Apollo magazine, ask the same question we do: “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?”

One likely predecessor is the Roman tradition of Hilaria, a spring festival held around March 25 in honor of the first day of the year longer than the night (we call this the vernal equinox, which typically falls on March 20). Festivities included games, processions and masquerades, during which disguised commoners could imitate nobility to devious ends. 

It’s hard to say whether this ancient revel’s similarities to the modern April Fools’ Day are legit or coincidence, as the first recorded mentions of the holiday didn’t appear until several hundred years later.

In 1561, for example, a Flemish poet wrote some comical verse about a nobleman who sends his servant back and forth on ludicrous errands in preparation for a wedding feast 

April Fools' Day is observed throughout the Western world. Practices include sending someone on a "fool's errand," looking for things that don't exist; playing pranks; and trying to get people to believe ridiculous things

The first mention of April Fools’ Day in Britain comes in 1686, when biographer John Aubrey described April 1 as a “Fooles holy day.”

On the evening of April 1, 1957, thousands of British families tuned in to watch Panorama—one of the day’s top current events broadcasts—to witness footage of a happy Swiss family harvesting their prized spaghetti trees. Unbeknownst to many viewers, the four-minute “news” segment, which literally showed strands of cooked pasta dangling from the trees in a family vineyard, was an intricate April Fools’ Day hoax devised by a freelance cameraman and produced for a paltry 100 pounds.

Forget the hundreds of angry letters and bitter newspaper headlines that followed—the show’s staff was “very pleased with [themselves],” having successfully elevated the centuries-old tradition of punking April fools to a mass-media high. Just imagine spaghetti trees.

So, if someone tells you something  Monday that sounds crazy, be prepared. It may just be an April Fools' Day prank.