Editorial: Origins of April Fools' Day hard to sort out, but its impact is not

Mar. 31, 2013 @ 11:55 PM

Trying to figure out the origin of April Fools’ Day is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube in five minutes. A few can do it, but the rest of us eventually just take a hammer to the thing and tear it to pieces.

Today is April 1, when superstitions come into play and practical jokes around the office or campus are not uncommon. A few can be elaborate hoaxes. Most are just harmless pranks. This seems more of a day for kids than adults. But it is a day called April Fools’ Day.

Why? The website info-lease.com is stumped. One of its explanations: Ancient cultures, including those of the Romans and Hindus, celebrated New Year’s Day on or around April 1. It closely follows the vernal equinox (March 20th or March 21st.) In medieval times, much of Europe celebrated March 25, the Feast of Annunciation, as the beginning of the new year.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar that called for New Year’s Day to be celebrated Jan. 1. That year, France adopted a calendar that did the same thing. According to a popular explanation, many people either refused to accept the new date, or did not learn about it, and continued to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 1. Other people began to make fun of these traditionalists, sending them on “fool’s errands” or trying to trick them into believing something false. Eventually, the practice spread throughout Europe, the website said.

There are at least two difficulties with this explanation, the website says. “The first is that it doesn’t fully account for the spread of April Fools’ Day to other European countries. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted by England until 1752, for example, but April Fools’ Day was already well established there by that point. The second is that we have no direct historical evidence for this explanation, only conjecture, and that conjecture appears to have been made more recently.”

David Emery of the website urbanlegends.com says the origins of April Fools’ Day are “obscure.” He does cite one of the greatest hoaxes ever: “One of the great media hoaxes of all time was perpetrated on April 1, 1957 by the BBC, which reported on its news program Panorama that Switzerland was experiencing a bumper spaghetti harvest that year thanks to favorable weather and the elimination of the dread ‘spaghetti weevil.’ Staged video footage showing happy peasants plucking strands of pasta from tall trees was so convincing that many viewers actually called the network to ask how they could grow their own.”

Whatever the origin, be aware of what this day can mean to you. But enjoy it anyway.