Ah, April Fools’ Day — the famous day during which we all have to make sure our toilet paper is accounted for, refuse to answer calls from numbers we don’t recognize, and generally question anything our loved ones tell us.
So how did this stupid holiday even come about? The truth is that it developed over the course of centuries, and people around the world got in on the fun.
A precursor to April Fools’ Day could be the celebration of the vernal equinox by the Greeks and Romans, during which the sun appears to leave the Southern Hemisphere and cross the celestial equinox.
The Roman celebration was called Hilaria, and it was held to honor the resurrection of Attis. His legendary rebirth signified the end of winter and the return of the crops.
The first recorded association between the first day of April and devious trickery was in Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,”which can be found in The Canterbury Tales (1392). In it, a fox tricks a rooster into becoming his meal, but is then tricked by the rooster into letting him go.
Both the fox and the rooster play on each other’s pride to get what they want. The fox tricks the rooster into singing a song for him, and while he does so, the fox grabs him by the throat. But when the rest of the animals chase the fox, the rooster convinces the predator to taunt them, giving himself time to escape.
During the Middle Ages in France, most believed that the beginning of the year was January 1, but a few believed that it fell closer to Easter. Writers suggested that those in the former party referred to those in the latter as being fools.
It wasn’t until Charles IX set the record straight with the Edict of Roussillon in 1564 that the new year was officially celebrated on January 1 in France.
In 1686, British philosopher John Aubrey declared April 1 as “Fooles Holy Day.” During the same year, a strange tradition began that saw people trying to trick others into visiting the Tower of London to see “the annual ceremony of washing the lions.”
Needless to say, there were no lions, but the prank continued for more than a century. Some believe this to be the first recurring April Fools’ Day prank ever recorded.
Then there’s the Dutch, who celebrate April 1 as the day when they retook Brielle from the Spanish during the Eighty Years’ War, making the Spanish Duke Álvarez de Toledo the fool who left the port undefended to focus his military efforts elsewhere.
So that’s how humans slowly transformed a holiday about the seasonal positioning of the sun into a day when you put your coworker’s stapler in a JELLO mold. Weird, isn’t it?