National Geographic Daily News
An illustration of children mocking an old man by tying a kite to his hair.
Young pranksters mark April Fools' Day by tying a kite to old man's wig in a circa-1770 illustration.

Illustration from Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Graeme Stemp-Morlock

for National Geographic News

March 28, 2008

For the eager prankster, nothing beats the centuries-old tradition of April Fools' Day.

"A lot of people think [April Fools' Day] is just obnoxious, and just wish it would stop," said Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego, California. (Read an April Fools' Day Q&A with the Museum of Hoaxes curator.)

"But people who love pranks really love the day and refuse to give up the tradition. They're the ones who keep it alive."

Boese notes, however, that the number of pranks in the home and at the office has decreased in recent years in the United States, and has been replaced by large institutionalized media hoaxes, he said.

(Related: "April Fools' Day Special: History's Hoaxes" [April 1, 2003].)

April Fools' Day Origins a Mystery

The origins of April Fools' Day are shrouded in mystery, experts say.

The most popular theory is that France changed its calendar in the 1500s so that the New Year would begin in January to match the Roman calendar instead of beginning at the start of spring, in late March or early April.

However word of the change traveled slowly, and many people in rural areas continued to celebrate the New Year in the spring. These country dwellers became known as "April fools," the story goes.

Boese, who has studied the holiday's origin, disagrees with that interpretation.

"[The French] theory is completely wrong, because the day that the French celebrated the beginning of the year legally was Easter day, so it never really was associated with April first," he said.

"Traditionally it was only a legal start to the year—people in France did actually celebrate [the New Year] on January first for as long as anybody could remember."

Boese believes instead that April Fools' Day simply grew out of age-old European spring festivals of renewal, in which pranks and camouflaging one's identity are common.

(Related: "April Fools' Day on Mars: Scientists Post Yearly Photo Joke")

April Fools' Day: The Joke's On Us

Joseph Boskin, professor emeritus of American humor at Boston University, has offered his own interpretation of the holiday's roots—as a prank.

In 1983, Boskin told an Associated Press reporter that the idea came from Roman jesters during the time of Constantine I in the third and fourth centuries A.D.

As the story goes, jesters successfully petitioned the ruler to allow one of their elected members to be king for a day.

So, on April first, Constantine handed over the reins of the Roman Empire for one day to King Kugel, his jester. Kugel decreed that the day forever would be a day of absurdity.

Kugel, incidentally, is an Eastern European dish that one of Boskin's friends had been craving.

The news agency was less than thrilled about the gambit, Boskin said. "I thought I should have been complimented for a quacky, quirky story that was fitted to the occasion."

Humor and pranksters can offer society some much-needed perspective, he added.

"Good humorists are basically secular shamans—they both heckle society on one hand and heal it on the other."

Boese of the Museum of Hoaxes also points out the day is an outlet for social inequalities to be openly confronted. For example, street urchins used to play April Fools' Day tricks on London gentlemen in the 1800s.

Stranger Than Fiction

However, fictional humor is slowly giving way to factual absurdities in popular culture, experts say.

One needs to look no further than the Ig Nobel prizes awarded every year for scientific research.

The 2007 Ig Nobel prize for medicine went to researchers who published an article on sword swallowing and its side effects—in the eminent British Medical Journal, no less.

(Related news: "Poop Vanilla, Endless Soup Among 2007 Ig Nobels" [October 5, 2007].)

"We keep inventing fewer things simply because we keep finding it is impossible to compete with reality," said Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research.

In March 2008 the journal described Philip M. Parker, who has invented a book-writing machine that scours a database of information to churn out a book in 20 minutes. The device has helped him author more than 300,000 titles—85,000 of which are for sale on Amazon.com, including the 2007-2012 Outlook for Lemon-Flavored Water in Japan and Webster's English to Zarma Crossword Puzzles: Level 1.

"The real stuff is funnier simply because it is real," Abrahams said.

"In that sense, the things that are real and funny are a superior form of [an] April Fools' joke, because you can tell them and people will think you are making it up."

7 comments
John Kelly
John Kelly

Why did they change new years from April 1 to January 1? Also when did they make this change and why did they made this change? 

Lizzie Obisanya
Lizzie Obisanya

Actually it was the original date of the Crucifixion, the Sahedrins and the Talmud called Jesus the Fool in their blasphemy and so  the Day that He was Cruficied over 2000 years was called the fools day. true. You can check good writings on the talmud and the original crucifixion...and that is even why it does not last the whole day. Plus the rumour at His Crucifixion was that He did not do what He said He did so that people would not b believe in Him

Eileen Johnson
Eileen Johnson

Enjoy the Day. Have fun it will be another year before another,

Neil Charlton
Neil Charlton

Excellent piece that will go down well with young and old, especially secondary school students, who don't necessarily know why we have April Fool's Day.  I have shared this with all my various social media connections.

Neil

http://goo.gl/UvTRUc

Iphigenia Pavlovic
Iphigenia Pavlovic

To add something related to  April Fools foolery,  These pranks and practical jokes consist of bad, good and even inappropriate ideas. However, I think, it is just a matter of understanding of how April Fools' day is being celebrated before.  In order to know everything about its history, you may see and <a href="http://wilstar.com/holidays/aprilfool.htm">check this out</a> also.

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