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April Fools’ Day: what is the origin of this day and why is it celebrated?

The centuries-old festival of jokes has its roots in much more mundane circumstances concerning religious doctrine and a switching of calendars.

April Fools’ Day: Las mejores bromas del Día de los Inocentes
Agencia Getty

April Fools’ Day: the time to be inundated with fake news stories, from things such as a celebrity having to play a football match in goal or the supposed re-release of some decades old models. The custom has existed for a long time, harkening back to ancient festivals like Hilaria in Ancient Rome.

References to April Fools’ existence, though not one we would recognize, are in literary texts as long ago as 1392. It is unknown when pranks and jokes began to be a central part of the day, but they are likely a 20th century invention. As far back as 1957 the BBC ran a bulletin on spaghetti-growing trees in Switzerland. Viewers, unaware of it being a prank, were left confused at such a strange story.

Where does the name come from?

It is thought that the custom comes from 16th century France. The Edict of Roussillon, promulgated by French King Charles IX, announced that January 1 would be the new beginning of the calendar. Easter was the old beginning of the year, but due to its moveable date was not a good choice for beginning a calendar. The 1563 Council of Trent, initiated by the Pope to counter the spreading of the Protestant heresy, made it clear that Catholicism would need to adapt to the changing religious landscape of Europe, hence the logical change.

Those who were unaware of the change to the calendar were said to be dubbed “April fools”, as they were still following the old calendar’s dates.

The translation of April fools is of course different in languages that aren’t English. In French speaking countries, the festival is known as poisson d’avril or ‘April fish’. This usually entails the pinning of paper fish to people’s backs and clothes.

Are there other similar days around the world?

Many nations have similar traditions on April 1, though it may have a different name. However, in Spanish-speaking countries the festivity is on December 27, 28 or 29 and is called the Día de los Santos Inocentes. The day is supposed to celebrate the first Christian martyrs; the children executed by King Herod.

One of the most famous Spanish traditions on the day of the innocents is Els Enfarinats, meaning ‘the breaded ones’ in English. Participants dress up in mock military gear then proceed to throw flour at one another.