April Fools Day is one of the most unusual “holidays” celebrated around the world today. While other holidays center around strict rituals (like Ash Wednesday or Dia de los Muertos) or large meals shared between family and friends (like Thanksgiving), the whole point of April Fools Day is to play mostly-harmless tricks on people. And as unusual as this day is, it’s appropriate, perhaps, that the actual origins of April Fools Day cannot be nailed down for certain.
Many theories exist as to the origin of April Fools Day, but all we know for sure is that it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that historical and popular sources began to reference the day—though there are some reports of sporadic references to April Fools Day dating as far back as the 16th century. The most popular theory of the origin of April Fools Day—though this theory, like others, cannot be verified—has to do with the Julian calendar. It was Julius Caesar who first proposed a uniform calendar, setting the start of the year on January 1st, but the change wasn’t widely accepted until Pope Gregory, in the late 1500s, issued a decree stating that the year should begin on January 1st.
Even still, many countries, according to this account, didn’t immediately catch on to or accept the new changes, and continued to celebrate the new year on incorrect dates. Those countries that did not move their beginning-of-the-year celebrations to January 1st mostly held on to April 1st as the beginning of their year—the reason for this is a combination of celebrating Easter (which, with the rising of Christ from the grave, is seen as a symbolic beginning for Christians) and the start of Spring (in which life blooms—again, symbolic of new beginning).
It is possible that from this confusion, the term “April Fool” was coined, describing those countries that still held onto the April 1st New Year date; but there really is no way to be certain: there just isn’t a reliable set of historical documents to verify this claim.
But what really interests everybody is not the history of April Fools Day—debatable as it may be—but the pranks that have made it famous. Every year, America’s National Public Radio (NPR) airs a fake broadcast. NPR, known for its droll, down-the-middle approach to news reporting, uses April Fools Day to poke fun at its own style: for instance, last year, it reported that instead of sending rebate checks, the IRS would be sending Americans actual consumer goods. And comic strip creators regularly switch places with one another on April Fools Day. These artists will usually drop many sly references to the switch that’s taken place, but rarely do they outright say that they are “guest drawing.” A couple of regular participants are Jim Davis (creator of Garfield) and Bill Keane (Family Circus).
Over recent years, the Internet has emerged as a popular way to institute April Fools pranks. One tradition has been for a user to post a link in an online discussion forum, usually using an attractive link title that purports to be particularly relevant to the discussion at hand. When a user clicks the link, they are taken to a music video of Rick Astley’s song “Never gonna give you up.” Over the years, this practice has come to be known as “Rickrolling,” and is no longer confined to April Fools Jokes.
Perhaps the first use of the Internet in pushing an April Fools prank was by Usenet. In the early days of the Internet, Usenet was the most popular—indeed, one of the only—ways for different users to communicate with one another. On April 1st, 1987, a Usenet member posted a message stating that the Russian KGB would be taking over control of Usenet. Users of the service, not actually used to being pranked on the Internet, accepted the posting as truth, until the original poster came clean, the next day.