April Fools’ Day 2021: history of the day of pranks explained - and how it is observed beyond the UK

The tradition of playing pranks on people on the first day of April has been around for centuries

In France, unsuspecting victims might be referred to as a “poisson d’avril” an April fish (Picture: Shutterstock)

April Fools’ Day is the perfect excuse to play practical jokes and hoaxes on your family and friends.

The tradition of pranking people on the first day of April has been around for centuries, but in the 21st century pranks and hoaxes are more annoying than ever because of social media and mobile phones.

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So, why do we fool our friends and family, what is the history behind the day and what are the funniest famous pranks? This is what you need to know.

What are the origins of April Fools’ Day?

The origins of the day of pranks on 1 April are unclear.

However, many historians believe the tradition dates back to the changing over from the Julian calendar to the Georgian calendar in France.

In 1582, France switched to the calendar used today - but the Julian calendar had celebrated New Year at the Spring Equinox, which was marked on 1 April.

When the country changed to the Georgian calendar in 1582, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563, people were slow to acknowledge the change and would still celebrate New Years on 1 April.

As such, these people became the butt of jokes and hoaxes and were called “April fools.”

Pranks such as having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolise a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person, were the beginning of the tradition.

In 1561, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene also wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on the first day of April.

This could suggest there were traditions prior to the changing of the French calendar and therefore the origins are a bit unclear.

Other rumours suggest that the day derives from the vernal equinox, or first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

It is reported that people thought Mother Nature was fooling them with sending unpredictable weather - usually associated with early spring.

When did we start playing pranks in the UK?

April Fools’ Day spread to Britain in the 18th century and typically included playing pranks on unsuspecting victims, before revealing the prank by shouting “April fools”.

In the UK and countries which have adopted the custom from the British tradition, the pranks or jokes should take place before midday - it is not known why this is an unwritten rule.

In the 18th century in Scotland, the tradition was a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk,” when people were sent on phony errands and succeeded by Tailie Day (2 April), which involved pranks played by pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on others’ buttocks.

How is April Fools’ Day marked in other countries?

In Ireland, throughout the centuries the tradition has been to hand your victim an "important letter" to be given to a named person.

The important person reads the "send the fool further" message, places it back in the envelope and sends the unaware fool to another and so on.

April Fools’ Day is taken more seriously in Poland and is referred to as Prima aprilis.

News outlets and even public institutions have been known to take part in pranks.

The jokes are unusually lighthearted and anything said on 1 April is largely questioned with regards to credibility.

The traditions are so well practised in Poland that the Polish anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31.

Poland also joins the UK in only playing pranks until midday, and prima aprilis jokes after that hour are considered inappropriate and not classy.

Danes, Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes celebrate April Fools' Day with newspapers and broadcasters telling a false story. This is usually on the front page but not the leading article.

The French tradition of “April Fish”, whereby people try to attach a paper fish to their victim’s back, is still practised in France, and has spread to Italy, Belgium and other French speaking countries.

Newspapers will also take part, writing false stories on the day with a subtle “fish” reference, to hint that the story is untrue.

Funniest famous April Fools

While the average person’s attempt to wind up their foolish friends, such as faking a surprised pregnancy or swapping out salt for sugar, the media have been known to get involved to add credibility to the falsehood by telling white lies.

In 1957, the BBC reported that Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees.

In 1992, the US radio station, National Public Radio, ran a story with former President Richard Nixon saying he was running for president again. However, the president was an actor and no one caught on - other media outlets were also taken by surprise and covered the story.

In 1996, US fast-food restaurant chain Taco Bell hoaxed customers when it announced it had bought over Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell.

In 1998, after Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper,” with droves of gullible customers requesting the fake sandwich.