Playing pranks on your friends is one of the great joys of being human, no matter where in the world you are from. Celebrations involving practical jokes seem to have existed in various cultures around the world, and were often part of the springtime renewal festivals, which tended to be chaotic and wild affairs. Over time, the general disruption seems to have subsided, while most of this pranking seems to have been consolidated into one date: April 1st, or April Fools’ Day.April Fools’ Day is usually said to have originated in France as a result of the shift to the Gregorian calendar, many people at the time would supposedly fail to remember. These forgetful ones would apparently continue to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 1st, and were therefore called April Fools.
However, the process of changing calendars was quite complicated and took a long time, and many people who have looked at this claim seriously have said that it’s highly implausible. There are plenty of other theories too, but none of them really adds up. In all probability, a diverse mix of local customs shifted and morphed into April Fools’ Day and spread across the world.
What we know for sure is that April Fools’ Day has been popular in Europe for several centuries, and has spread to most of the world over the last century. You’ll now find people playing pranks on each other everywhere from Italy to Japan. Here’s a look at April Fools’ Day around the world.
One of the oldest known references to April Fools’ Day in the world comes from England, and can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, although the reference is open to interpretation, and is therefore disputed by some. In any case, April Fools’ Day exploits in England certainly go back for centuries, and include some highly entertaining practices and incidents. One old English tradition involved sending people to the Tower of London to watch the lions being washed in the moat. Of course, there were no lions being washed on April 1st (or ever), so the journey was a waste. Traditionally, however, pranks could only be played during the first half of the day. If you tried to fool someone in the second half, then you were the “April Fool”, and not them.
One of the greatest and most entertaining pranks played in England was in 1957, when the BBC broadcast a three-minute long report on their current affairs program “Panorama”, showing “spaghetti harvesting” from trees in Switzerland. Today this might seem too outrageous to be believed by anyone, but at the time, spaghetti was relatively unknown outside Italy, and of course no one had the internet to look things up. Millions of people watched the program and plenty of them believed the story. Hundreds even called up the BBC, some to question the authenticity of the story, and to enquire about growing their own spaghetti trees. Reportedly, whoever was manning the phones that day advised the callers to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”. Today, newspapers and television channels frequently play April Fools’ Day pranks on their audiences, but it’s unlikely that anyone, including the BBC themselves, has outdone the spaghetti tree hoax.
France, as we mentioned, is where April Fools’ Day is said to have originated. Apart from the calendar change theory, there’s another theory that has to do with the supposed reason why the French call the day “Poissons d’Avril” or “April Fish”. According to this theory, early April is when young fish would hatch in rivers and streams, and these “foolish” fish would be easy to catch. Once again, evidence for this rather tenuous link is hard to find, but the association of April 1st with fish remains. A prankster will stick a paper fish to their friend’s back, which will later be discovered with much laughter and delight. There’s also a more sedate April Fools’ tradition that involves simply gifting a friend a chocolate in the shape of a fish. April Fish is also celebrated to some extent in Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada.
You’ll occasionally find it said that the Hindu festival of Holi in India is celebrated the day before April Fools’ Day, and is a day for playing pranks and throwing colorful powders and water at each other. However, this claim actually confuses a lot of aspects of the festival. The festival of Holi doesn’t have a fixed date – it varies according to the moon, and therefore does not always fall on March 31st. In addition, the focus of Holi isn’t really pranks – although it has been something of a tradition to throw water and color at passersby in the week leading up to the festival, this is often seen as miscreancy and is now on the decline – rather, the focus is on color. Nonetheless, April Fools’ Day and the associated pranks are quite popular in India, and there’s even a Bollywood film called “April Fool” (with a title song of the same name), about a practical joker whose favorite day of the year is April 1st. In typical Bollywood style, eventually his jokes lead to romance and a run-in with some dangerous criminals, with plenty of singing and dancing in between.
In Iran, April Fools’ Day tends to coincide with a more traditional festival known as Sizdah Be-dar, loosely translated as “The Thirteenth in the Outdoors”, which is part of the Persian New Year celebrations. New Year’s Day itself (Nowruz or Norouz) occurs on the day of the vernal equinox and celebrates the beginning of spring and the beginning of the month of Farvardin. On the 13th day of this month, Sizdah Be-dar is celebrated, with outdoor picnics, feasts, and games. This usually happens on April 1st or April 2nd, and Doruq e Sizda (Lie of the Thirteen) is also celebrated on the same day. This is the festival of pranks, and it is said to go back to around 500 BC, although some sources say that the Iranian version of April Fools’ Day is a more recent development.
Jordan doesn’t seem to have any major April Fools’ Day traditions as such, however it does have a prank to rival the BBC one. In April 2010, the newspaper “Al-Ghad” published a front-page article claiming that UFOs had landed in the desert near the town of Jafr. The “report” was extremely detailed, describing what the aliens looked like, what their flying saucer looked like, the reactions of the residents, the effect on communications infrastructure in the region, and so on. The elaborate prank resulted in panic, with residents and even local authorities making plans for an evacuation. When the truth was revealed, the mayor of the town was furious enough to threaten to sue the newspaper. However, the paper issued a formal apology soon after, and it seems that all has been forgiven.
April Fools’ Day is not observed in Saudi Arabia. In fact, in 2001 the chief cleric of the country issued a fatwa saying that Muslims should refrain from celebrating April Fools’ Day because it was essentially a tradition that involved lying and was something that only unbelievers did. According to the cleric, lying is permitted for Muslims only in three specific circumstances, and none of them involves playing pranks on your friends.
Scotland and Ireland
April Fools’ Day is a big deal in Scotland. They even have their own name for it, Hunt the Gowk Day (“gowk” meaning cuckoo or fool), and they add a second day known as Taily Day. The first day, April 1, is celebrated by sending someone on a fool’s errand. This is similar to the traditional English celebration, but the Scots have their own spin on it – the “gowk” is asked to deliver a letter, which typically has instructions to send him further. The traditional text of the message is, “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” This continues until the person realizes that he is the victim of a prank. On April 2nd, the practical jokes continue. Taily Day, as you may have guessed from the name, is focused on the buttocks. The “Kick Me” sign is said to have originated here, and is still quite popular, but other pranks and jokes involving people’s backsides are also in abundance.
Ireland seems to have very similar April Fools’ Day traditions, but one uniquely Irish prank is for newspapers to announce that the entire country is going to switch to driving on the right. A one-off prank was played by the Irish Times in 1965, when they announced that the country would soon be under prohibition. There was of course a great uproar, especially from Seán Lemass, the former prime minister, who the report claimed was responsible for this sacrilegious idea.
Spain and Latin America
The Day of the Holy Innocents isn’t directly related to April Fools’ Day, and it is usually celebrated on December 28th; however, it is so wildly popular in so much of the world and is also so similar to April Fools’ Day that we have to mention it here. The feast is meant to commemorate the massacre of children below two years of age on the orders of King Herod, according to the Bible story. Somehow though, this rather macabre event is today marked by pranks and practical jokes.
One of the more traditional pranks involves borrowing an item or money from someone on this day, and then keeping it for good. This is typically done more for the value of the prank than the value of the item or money itself, which is usually small. The “borrowee” has usually forgotten what day it is, and when they later ask for the item or money to be returned, the borrower responds with one of several traditional rhymes that essentially say, “You let yourself be fooled!” Another Spanish tradition that also occurs in Portugal involves flour fights, which sometimes include fighters in full military dress.
Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland
As we’ve already noted, this is something that now happens in other parts of the world too, but in the Nordic countries, it’s been a tradition for quite a while now – on April 1st, the morning newspapers play pranks. The front page of most newspapers contains at least one story that’s completely made-up, and it’s up to the readers to figure out which one. Given how outrageous the news can sometimes be, this is probably more difficult than it seems, even for people who are aware that it’s April Fools’ Day. However, for the many people who lose track of the date each year, it must make for some amusing conversations about the day’s news. Often, television channels will also run a prank story on April 1st.
In addition, in Denmark and Sweden, apparently one day a year isn’t enough to play pranks on your friends. The Danes and Swedes celebrate a similar day on the last day of April or the first day of May, to mark the end of the month when the weather plays tricks on everyone by pretending that spring has arrived and then retreating. The day is called “Majkat”, and so is the person who has been pranked.
What are some of your favourite April Fools’ Day pranks? Let us know in the comments!