The biggest April Fools’ joke of all is its origin story.
Nobody loves April Fools’ Day more than brands. Last year, Adweek compiled a list of 98 pranks performed by companies on April 1. Highlights included an app that teaches dogs how to code, Quilted Northern’s artisanal toilet paper and Pornhub’s temporary rebrand to Cornhub. You feeling corny, baby?
These days, April Fools’ feels more like a corporate exercise than a genuine celebration of jokes and pranks. But perhaps the biggest April Fools’ joke of all is its origin story.
The murky origins of April Fools’ Day
No one is completely sure how the holiday started, but historians believe its beginnings are rooted in religion.
In 1563, delegates from the Roman Catholic Church convened in Italy for the third meeting of the Council of Trent. One of the council’s main objectives was fixing the calendar: in 45 BCE, Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar, which set the new year during the last week of March.
The Catholics were concerned by the Julian calendar’s math: an incorrect calculation was causing dates to drift, throwing off everyone’s Easter plans. To correct the problem, the council members recommended removing 10 days from the current schedule. Nineteen years later, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII oversaw the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which rescheduled the new year to January 1st.
News didn’t travel particularly fast in the 16th century, and many people continued to celebrate the New Year in March instead of January. Those in the know capitalized on this opportunity to laugh at these uninformed revelers. In France, it became popular to place a paper fish on the gullible person’s back and refer to the them as a “poisson d’avril” or “April fish.”
The British are credited with popularizing the holiday during the 18th century, but it was the Scots who figured out how to truly milk the celebrations. In Scotland, the holiday was stretched out over the course of two days. The first day was known as “Huntigowk,” shortened from “Hunt the gowk” (the word gowk refers to a cuckoo bird or a foolish person). During Huntigowk, celebrators aimed to prank their friends, often by sending them on foolish errands.
The second day of celebration was Tailie Day, a holiday completely focused on butts. For 24 hours, Scottish people attempted to stick “kick me” signs or tails on their friends’ behinds, literally turning them into the butt of the joke.
Spring is for pulling pranks and partying
For centuries, cultures around the world have ushered in the vernal equinox by engaging in celebratory behavior. Judaism’s Purim holiday requires that participants dress in funny costumes and drink to excess; the Hindu holiday Holi is a spring festival celebrating love and the triumph of good over evil. Hilaria was an ancient Roman festival that occurred annually on March 25th in honor of the resurrection of Attis, a consort of Cybele, the ancient Greek Mother of Gods. Celebrators attended parades, masquerades and engaged in other forms of public rejoicing.
TL;DR: No one knows exactly how April Fools’ Day began, but it likely started due to a scheduling conflict. I wonder what Pope Gregory XIII would think if he knew that the Gregorian calendar played a pretty key role in creating Cornhub?
Joke’s on us?—?we’ll never know.