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Bampton Morris's legendary fool, Barry Care, seen in his clown's costume, holding a pig's bladder on a stick.
A legendary fool. Bare Care MBE, of Bampton Morris

Customs uncovered: April Fools’ Day (All Fools’ Day)

Everything you ever wanted to know about April Fools' Day (All Fools' Day), from origins to the UK's first known prank.

April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day as it was once more commonly known (Huntigowk Day in Scotland), is not as old as people like to think. There appears to be no record of it being associated with the Roman Hilaria festival, nor with the Egyptian gods Seth, Osiris and Isis, as is often claimed. The fact that it fails to turn up in any of Shakespeare’s plays, those of his contemporaries, or even in Samuel Pepys’s diaries, suggests that it had yet to evolve.

So, where does April Fools’ Day come from, and what kind of trickery went on in the past? Read on and discover…

The origins of April Fools’ Day

The earliest known reference to April Fools’ Day (in the UK, at least) is in John Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme (1686), in which the author notes that “Fooles Holy Day” takes place on April 1st, and that it is similarly celebrated in Germany. Historians believe it caught on slightly earlier on the continent, but that it has no real history prior to that.

Quite why April Fools’ Day exists seems to be similarly mysterious, and many attempts to explain it look like little more than educated guesses. There appear to be two main theories: that it is close enough to the end of Lent to warrant a party, and that it is far enough away from the revelries of Christmas to necessitate a party.

Indeed, Professor Ronald Hutton points out that the peasantry of medieval England were, at around this time of the year, desperately trying to find their fun on Care Sunday (named after carlin peas) by cooking peas in butter… so you can see how they were lacking in mirth and inspiration. Thankfully, this hard-worn custom seems to have vanished.

Once a very popular custom, April Fools’ Day (or All Fools’ Day, as it was known, presumably to play off All Souls’ Day) appears to have died out amongst adults in the late 19th century, instead becoming something that children and the mass media celebrated almost exclusively, as we shall see. In more recent years, it has become common for brands to try and prank their followers on social media. What larks.

Legendary pranks

According to Professor Hutton, writing in The Stations of the Sun, the earliest recorded April Fools’ Day prank arrived in 1698, “when several persons were gulled into turning up to the moat of the Tower of London, ‘to see the lions washed'”. As Steve Roud adds in The English Year, “washing lions in the Tower” has since come to mean a hoax, and is still used fairly frequently in some regions.

Roud’s book lists plenty of other Fool’s Day trickery, not least a quote from the diary of two Croydon women working at an aircraft factory during WWII. On April 1st, 1943, they arrived at their posts to find that their colleagues from the previous night’s shift had coated the handles of the machinery in grease (must’ve been a quiet night). They weren’t best pleased, although they sent some of the perpetrators on “a fool’s errand” to report to the officials in the time office, resulting in a queue of worried people lining up before their equally perplexed and exasperated superiors.

Roud also lists a number of media instances and headlines: “Colour Cars Face Green Ban” (The Croydon Post) reported that certain streets were only open to drivers on specific days depending on the colour of their car); new job openings to include “Aid to the Ambigious” and “Senior Rhubarb Consultant to the West Midlands” (The Guardian); and a Panorama special on the BBC showing how spaghetti is grown on trees in Switzerland (see the videos above).

When it comes to April Fools’ Brand LOLs, everyone’s got a favourite, haven’t they? No, seriously. They have, haven’t they?

When April Fools’ pranks aren’t what they seem

Of course, not all news that breaks on the morning of April 1st turns out to be a prank. Sometimes the newsroom has to get serious, even when the public at large continues to believe there are japes afoot.

According to VH1’s Behind the Music, Marvin Gaye’s death (shot by his own father) on April 1st, 1984, was mistakenly believed to be a sick April Fools’ joke. Jermaine Jackson and Smokey Robinson were among people close to Gaye who had to phone friends to confirm that the date had nothing to do with the news reports.

ScienceAlert has written that when Gmail was announced on April 1st, 2004, many observers believed it to be an April Fools’ joke. Their promise of a searchable email account with 1gb of data per user was considered too far-fetched at the time to be anything other than bantz. Anecdotal reports tell us that people in the industry were heard to joke that Google’s next move would be to, “open an office on the moon”.

April Fools’ Day rules

There’s really only one rule for April Fools’ Day, and that’s that you stop the nonsense by midday, otherwise, “you’re the biggest fool at last” (tell that to some of those LOLworthy brands). According to Steve Roud, this rule has been in place since the 1870s.

Although not exactly a rule, it was customary in times gone by to prank apprentices and office newbies – let’s call it lighthearted bullying, shall we? – by sending them on “a fool’s errand” (as mentioned earlier). This was essentially a quest to find something related to their trade that could not exist, such as an engineer searching for a liquid magnet, or (if you were a chef) a sauerkraut seed. If the fool refused to come to their senses, they might be sent on yet another errand until they caught on. In Scotland, this was known as, “hunting the gowk another mile”.

The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).