The Origin Of April Fools' Day

Prank-pulling has been an April 1 tradition for more than 500 years.

Who was the first joker to put a frog in the teacher's desk? What clown originated the idea of rearranging his friend's apartment and putting all the furniture on the roof?

Hard to say, but by most accounts, these pranks and countless other annoying gotchas have been a tradition for more than 500 years on the first day of April. Ever since, it has become the one day a year when all manner of pranks, practical jokes, fake headlines and assorted mischief is not only tolerated, but expected.

While the first inklings of accepted foolishness on the doorstep of April is found in a misreading of a line in Chaucer's 1392 ode to all manner of saucy behavior, "The Canterbury Tales," the most common origin of the odd tradition is attributed to 16th-century France. During that period, King Charles IX tore up the traditional calendar and moved New Year's from the end of March to January 1 in 1582, leading to the mocking of those who still celebrate the new year in spring as fools. In fact, one of the most popular jokes to play during this period was sneaking a paper fish onto an unsuspecting fools' back, with the victim dubbed a Poisson d'Avril, or April Fish, which continues to be the French term for the practice to this day.

One place it definitely didn't come from is the Romans during Constantine's rule in the 300s, when a group of court jesters is alleged to have tricked him into making one of them king for a day. Constantine agreed to make a fool named Kugel monarch on April 1, and during his brief reign, he decreed that the day would be a celebration of hoaxes and absurd behavior. Only that story, too, was a prank, pulled off by Boston University professor Joseph Boskin in 1983, who managed to fool an Associated Press reporter into printing it before the wire service realized its mistake.

By the mid-17th century, the April Fools' prank parade had spread throughout much of Europe under the name "All Fools' Day." It developed into a day on which friends tried to trick each other into running silly errands in search of nonexistent objects, such as pigeon's milk. One of the most infamous early widespread reports of the practice was from the April 2, 1698, edition of the British newspaper Dawks' News-Letter, which reported on a group of people who went to the Tower of London to see a nonexistent ceremonial washing of the lions, a joke repeated annually for centuries to come.

In addition to such modest tricks, more elaborate hoaxes have been pulled over the years, from a 1998 ad by Burger King in USA Today for a left-handed burger, a 1957 one from the BBC show "Panorama" that blew the lid off the eradication of the dreaded spaghetti weevil from Italy's spaghetti trees, and a joke played last year on U2 fans who were tricked into rushing to a shopping center in the Irish town of Cork for a phantom rooftop show from the band. For more of these classic hoaxes, visit the Museum of Hoaxes Web site.

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