Here’s why we observe April Fools’ Day - and how many years it dates back

By Helen Johnson
Wednesday, 1st April 2020, 12:01 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st April 2020, 12:02 pm
April Fools’ Day dates back hundreds of years and is now observed by people across the globe each 1 April (Photo: Shutterstock)
April Fools’ Day dates back hundreds of years and is now observed by people across the globe each 1 April (Photo: Shutterstock)

April Fools’ Day dates back hundreds of years and is now observed by people across the globe each 1 April. But where did it begin and why do we observe it?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What were the first references made to April Fools’ Day?

This annual day of trickery and hoaxes became widely popular in the 19th century, but it is believed to have begun many years before this.

In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, in the Nun's Priest's Tale, a Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox on "Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two", which some readers came to understand meant "since March began thirty days and two" - or 1 April.

It is not clear that Chaucer was referring to April 1, with modern scholars believing that there is a copying error in replica manuscripts. They instead believe that Chaucer actually wrote," Syn March was gon", or "since March was gone."

However, if it is true, this would be the first time April Fools’ Day was mentioned in any language, predating any other reference by around 170 years.

It also provides strong evidence that April Fools’ Day originated in England.

Claims have also been made that French poet Eloy d'Amerval, and Flemish poet Eduard de Dene, both made individual references to April Fools’ Day in their work.

Renewal Festivals and the Spring Equinox

Some believe that April Fools’ Day began due to events in the calendar, relating to ‘renewal festivals’ dating back to the Roman times and celebrating the start of a new year or season.

This also relates to the Spring Equinox, as the beginning of spring and planting flowers signified the start of the new year and hence the beginning of April Fool’s Day.

People also used to celebrate the start of the year in March, but when this changed to January, those who still celebrated it at the end of March were considered to be a fool and had jokes played on them, hence the relation to April Fools’ Day.

‘Fooles Holy Day’

In 1686, the first known and true British reference to April Fools’ Day was made by John Aubrey, who referred to the holiday as "Fooles holy day".

Twelve years later on 1 April 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London in an attempt to ‘see the Lions washed’.

In some areas of Europe, this day is known as April Fish Day, as many believe there are a lot of fish in streams and rivers in France on and around April 1, and that these fish are easy to catch, which makes them foolish.

Today, it is still a common trick in France and other parts of Europe, to attach a paper fish to somebody's back on 1 April.

April Fools’ Day traditions and customs

It is still common around the UK today, that those who are made the ‘fool’ by falling for a trick will hear the words “April Fool” shouted at them.

Tradition says that pranks should cease to be played by 12pm, and those who continue to play pranks are then considered to be the fool.

It is believed that in Scotland, April Fools’ Day was traditionally called 'Huntigowk Day', meaning 'Hunt the Gowk', as ‘gowk’ is a Scottish reference to a cuckoo or a foolish person.

In Ireland, the tradition used to be to entrust the ‘April Fool’ with an ‘important letter’ which was to be given to a specific person.

That person would then ask the ‘April Fool’ to take it to someone else, and so on and so forth.

When the letter was finally opened it contained the words ‘send the fool further’, the joke then finally revealing itself.