April Fools' Day is a day celebrated in many countries around the world, although it is not an official holiday, on April 1st when pranks, hoaxes and jokes are carried out. Some of the hoaxes over the years have been quite elaborate and even expensive in their execution. Pranks and hoaxes are not limited to individuals; major corporations and organisations have also pulled them, sometimes quite frequently.
What are Fools?
April Fools' Day celebrates fools, but what are fools? The most common modern definitions of a fool are "a person who acts or thinks unwisely or imprudently, a stupid person" and "a dupe." The historical definition of a fool, which is the one used in relation to the fools celebrated on April Fools' Day is "a jester, a clown."
The fool was a jester, sometimes referred to as a court jester, and usually wore Motley, a woollen fabric of mixed colours. The harlequin theatrical character wore a similar type of clothing and this design is still seen in clothes today. Fools and jesters were often professionals and by adopting such unusual dress, the jesters placed themselves outside the normal hierarchy, and thus were not constrained by the societal norms in his behaviour. The primary role of the jester may be to entertain, but court jesters did not just simply amuse. Being outside the hierarchy they could, and apparently were supposed to, also criticise those who would normally have been considered their betters, even their king or queen - in theory at least.
The Origins of April Fools' Day
The Persian ceremony of Sizdah Bedar was celebrated long before April Fools' Day and is the 13 day of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, which falls on the 1st or 2nd if April. One of the traditions on this date is for Iranians to play pranks on each other. Dating back to 536 BC, this is the oldest known tradition and may be the origin for the modern Fools' Day.
Festival of Hilaria
The Festival of Hilaria was a weeklong Roman festival celebrated at the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox is the spring equinox; the two equinoxes are the only times during the year when the centre of the Sun is exactly overhead the Earth's equator. The festival started on March 22nd and finished on March 28th, with March 25th being the height of the festival. The festival was held in honour of the goddess Cybele, originally a mother goddess from Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor and comprising the majority of modern day Turkey). The Latin word "hilaria" is the origin for the English word "hilarious" and its forms.
On March 25th games and amusements were common as were masquerades when it was allowed to imitate anyone with a disguise.
Feast of Fools
The Feast of Fools is used to describe a number of medieval festivals that were held from the 5th until the 16th century in various European countries. The festival is believed to descend from the Roman Saturnalia festival, which was held in December and which was hijacked by the Christian festival of Christmas. During the Feast, as in Saturnalia, those of a low social position were temporarily raised to a higher position, including the "Lord of Misrule" who presided over the Feast. The Feast of Fools was held during the Christmas period and frequently evoked condemnation from the Church, even though Church members were also participants.
Modern April Fools' Day
There are a wide variety of possible origins for April 1st becoming April Fools' Day, and none is certain. One of the suggested origins is when the British changed to the Gregorian Calendar, rather than the Julian Calendar, in 1752. This was substantially behind the rest of Europe which had changed in 1582. Britain had become Protestant with the formation of the Church of England, whilst Pope Gregory XIII was Roman Catholic.
Prior to the calendar change Britain had celebrated the new year on April 1st. With the change, the New Year moved to January 1st. Although Fools' Days had been celebrated long before the date of the calendar change, this did make a former day of celebration vacant.
However, there are British references that pre-date this. John Aubrey in 1686 wrote "Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere." showing that April 1st was associated with a Fools' Day even back in 1686.
The earliest reference to an April Fools' Day is actually European, pre-dating the British calendar change. A 1539 poem by Flemish writer Eduard De Dene describes a nobleman who plans to send his servant on a number of pointless errands on April 1st. The servant recognises the prank, and seems to realise that it is an April 1st joke, which would suggest the custom was already widespread.
In some countries, like the United Kingdom and other countries whose Fools' tradition was influenced by the UK, April Fools may only be carried out up to 12 noon. Anyone who carries out a prank after that is considered to be the fool themselves, although this deadline seems to be less common than it used to be. Not only those countries descended from the British tradition have or celebrate Fools' days.
There have many notable April Fools' hoaxes carried out over the years, far too many to discuss in detail. Some have been more successful than others, and some have resulted in criminal charges being pressed.
The Annual Spaghetti Harvest
In 1957, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), published a three minute segment on the Panorama program which showed the annual spaghetti harvest being carried out in Ticino in Switzerland. The segment was narrated by Richard Dimbleby. At that time, spaghetti was not that common in the UK, and was considered an exotic delicacy. The family was shown harvesting spaghetti from the plants, which would grow back to the same length the next year thanks to generations of work by spaghetti farmers.
The segment, which was one of the first times that television was used to stage an April Fool, received mixed reactions from viewers, with some decrying the misuse of a factual programme this way (Panorama is a current affairs documentary program first broadcast in 1953 and the longest running program of its type), whilst others wanted to know where they could buy their own spaghetti bush.
Google is known for pulling hoaxes on April Fools' Day, the first one being in 2000. These have got more complex and widespread through the years, with multiple hoaxes being enacted across Google's various products. Their first was MentalPlex in 2000 when users had to stare at an animated gif whilst projecting their desired search term with their mind. This resulted in a number of "error" messages being displayed. Others included the drink Google Gulp, TiSP - Toilet Internet Service Provider and Project Virgle, a partnership between the Virgin Group and Google to create a permanent human settlement on Mars.