Where Did April Fools' Day Come From? The History and Origins of the Prank Holiday

The origins of April Fools' Day, a holiday celebrated by playing tricks on people and spreading hoaxes, are shrouded in mystery and lost to history. But there are a few good theories of how and why the first of April became a day of impish delight; some even date back to ancient Rome.

Some historians connect the holiday to Hilaria, a late-March end-of-winter celebration in Ancient Rome where people would dress up in costumes and disguises. Others tie it to the vernal equinox and the tricky weather that comes with the start of spring.

In 1392, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a story about a foolish hero takes place on March 32, which might be a reference to April 1.

A more common theory suggests that the holiday emerged in the late 1500s, when France moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Because of the change, New Year celebrations were moved back three months from April 1 to January 1, but not everybody got the memo. Those who were in the know would drop in on their less knowledgeable neighbors and play tricks on them. Often, they'd pin a cutout fish on their back; a poissond'avril, or April fish, was thought of as easy to catch.

Two women wear giant glasses at the Humorina carnival in Odessa, Ukraine. The origins of April Fools' Day likely have European roots. ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images

Whatever its true origin may be, the holiday gained traction in the 1700s when it became popular for the British to play pranks on one another. The Scots even made the event a two-day affair: One day where people were asked to "hunt the gowk" (or the cuckoo bird) and were sent on silly errands, and another day where people would pin signs and ornaments to their friends' rear ends, known as Tailie Day.

By the 1950s, the media started playing along. In 1957, the BBC jokingly reported that farmers in Switzerland were harvesting spaghetti crops and created video to go along with it. Many Brits believed the program and called to find out where they could purchase a pasta bush.

In recent years, corporations have also joined in on the fun. In 2017, Google announced its plans to open a data center on Mars called "Ziggy Stardust."

This year, April Fools and Easter share a day, so be careful when biting into any sweet treats, and be mindful of any party guests who appear a bit too gleeful—they might be plotting something, and no one wants to be thepoissond'avril.