Although the exact origin of April Fool’s Day is far from certain, most historical evidence indicates that this tradition of prank playing and practical jokes, traces back to the reign of King Charles IX of France. In sixteenth century France, New Year’s Day had been traditionally observed on 25 March , for centuries being associated with the advent of spring. Across the country, parties, feasting, and the exchange of gifts took place for the entire week, ending on 1 April.
However, in 1564, King Charles proclaimed that New Year’s Day would be moved to 1 January, in an effort to bring his country in line with the more accurate Gregorian calendar. Many Frenchmen, though, refused to heed the king’s new reform, and chose to ignore the government’s efforts to modernize the calendar. These conservative traditionalists continued to celebrate the old New Year’s Day of 25 March, as they always had, carrying on with their parties and gift giving for the whole following week as before.
Those who embraced the king’s efforts to modernize the calendar, found the traditionalists refusal to change their ways ridiculous. In an effort to humiliate and embarrass these stubborn citizens, many people would invent fake invitations to non-existent parties and events, fabricating all sorts of tricks to dupe the unwary old timers. Instead of serious, well intentioned, gifts, these pranksters would often send foolish gag gifts as a way to mock the previous practice.
As a nod towards the shifting of the sun out of the astrological sign of Pisces, the targets of these April Fool’s Day jokes were called “April Fish.” So popular did the whole April Fool’s Day tradition become in France, that for centuries, thereafter, any person involved in a significant event on the first day of April, earned the moniker “April Fish.” Notably, even Napoleon I, was not exempt from this type of ridicule. Having married his second wife, Marie-Louise, on 1 April, many Frenchmen secretly referred to him as “April Fish.”
In time, the April Fool’s day tradition crossed the English Channel, and was celebrated by the British also. When Englishmen settled in the New World, they brought their love of April Fool’s Day with them, and to this day, 1 April, is enjoyed around the world as an opportunity to play practical jokes and perpetrate hoaxes on the gullible and unsuspecting. Traditionally, April Fool’s Day pranks are supposed to end by noon, but in many countries, the shenanigans continue till sundown.