April Fools’ Day pranks: Who started this thing, anyway?

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April Fools' Day: Why do we celebrate it?

INDIANAPOLIS — Depending on your point of view, April Fools’ Day is perhaps the most fun or the most annoying day of the year.

The holiday is particularly groan-worthy in the news business, when pranksters from locals to major corporations come out in full force trying to get wild and untrue stories picked up.

As evidenced this week with the Volkswagen fiasco, some pranks incite anger.

The company issued a fake press release as a publicity stunt, which is not uncommon this time of year, but it took things a step further by privately telling skeptical reporters it was not a joke or marketing ploy — resulting in widespread publication of false information.

Hate it or love it, April Fools’ Day has cultural roots dating back at least a few centuries. The exact origin is murky, but some stories and theories are more prevalent than others.

Britannica says the holiday resembles festivals like ancient Rome’s Hilaria on March 25 and India’s Holi celebration ending March 31, but it ultimately calls the true origins “unknown and effectively unknowable.” No mincing words there.

According to the History Channel, there’s speculation that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when France switched to the modern Gregorian calendar. That moved the new year to January 1, but those who didn’t get the news in a timely fashion would have continued to celebrate in late March through April 1, becoming “the butt of jokes and hoaxes.”

Parade notes at least three recorded mentions of April Fools’ Day in the 16th and 17th centuries. Popular antics included sending people on ridiculous errands and inviting unsuspecting out-of-towners to attend the lion-washing ceremony.

Writer John Aubrey called April 1 “Fooles holy day” in 1686, but close enough.

By the 18th century, the holiday was widely celebrated across Britain, the History Channel says. In Scotland, it was a two-day event that included a prank you might find familiar: attaching a “kick me” sign to someone’s backside.

What's the history of April Fools' Day?

We reached out to several history professors at Indiana University, IUPUI and the University of Indianapolis, but no one could point to a definitive answer on the origin beyond what’s been speculated and what’s circulating on the internet.

“Golly, this just isn’t my wheelhouse. I don’t see a lot of my colleagues really having knowledge of this, either,” Dr. Edward Frantz, professor of history and chair of UIndy’s history and political science department, wrote in an email response.

Turns out, people have been asking this same question since at least 1708, when, as it’s been widely reported, a columnist for the British Apollo magazine wrote: “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” Translation: How did this whole thing start?

Since a definitive answer still hasn’t surfaced 313 years later, catch up with us in the year 2334, when we plan to revisit the topic.

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