No one seems to be exactly sure why or how April Fools’ Day came to be such a quaint tradition. Long ago, the Roman festival of Hilaria occurred sometime around March 25, and involved masquerades and disguises, and irritating anyone you wanted no matter how important or rich they were. It was preceded however by a day of floggings and self-punishment, which sounds rather morbid, so we can all be glad that that little holiday didn’t endure.
In Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is set on the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, which took place on April 1, 1381. In that story, the conceited cock, Chauntecleer, is tricked by a wily Fox.
In 1539, the Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote about a nobleman who entertained himself on April 1st by sending his servants on on fool’s errands. In 1686, John Aubrey referenced a “Fooles holy day,” and that seems to be the first time a Brit wrote about the date. On April 1, 1698, several people were apparently tricked into visiting a moat near The Tower of London to “see the lions washed.” Apparently, bathing lions in a moat was a plausible story back then. Who knew? Anyway, since then there’s a running joke about going to the “white gate” to see a bunch of large exotic cats get a bath.
The most popular theory about the origin of April Fool’s Day however, has to do with the French calendar reform of the sixteenth century:
Hoaxes.org explains: In 1564 France reformed its calendar, moving the start of the year from the end of March to January 1. Those who failed to keep up with the change, who stubbornly clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate the New Year during the week that fell between March 25th and April 1st, had jokes played on them. Pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were thus called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish — which, to this day, remains the French term for April Fools — and so the tradition was born.
That theory however is plagued by many questions and opposing theories though, and none of them make much more sense than any other. And why should they? It is April Fool’s Day after all. If you want to read more about this quirky holiday, read this.