Volunteer writer, Sebastian Wieneke, shares the speculative origins of April Fool’s Day as well as pranks/hoaxes that have been pulled before.
On the first of April 1957, viewers of the investigative BBC programme Panorama were shown a hoax report on the “spaghetti harvest” taking place in the village of Ticino, Switzerland. The ‘farmer’ and his family are shown picking long pieces of the pasta off tree branches, while Richard Dimbleby goes on to explain that spaghetti farming here is small time compared to the “tremendous scale of the Italian industry”, and that each strand of spaghetti always grows to the same length thanks to the hard work of generations of growers.
Panorama is and always has been regarded by many as a serious, factual programme, so this story naturally baffled many viewers. Some called in to criticise the broadcaster for the choice to air such nonsense, while others were curious to know how they could grow their own spaghetti. At the time, spaghetti was not a common food item for British households to have, so perhaps the confusion is somewhat understandable.
Furthermore, this bizarre broadcast is believed to be one of the first April fool’s day hoaxes to be conducted via television.
April fool’s day is a festivity with enigmatic origins stretching back to at least the time of the ancient Romans. Although there may not be one clear originating culture, traditions of mischief, mayhem and practical joking on the first of April are observed by many from all around the world.
The last April fool’s prank by the SU was ‘Lufbropoly’ in 2019. Though we assume they were a little busy attending to some other stuff in March/April 2020, it could be speculated that they’ve got something planned for this year.
Historians have come up with many theories that attempt to uncover where this strange occasion may have come from, although there is still no definitive right answer.
Some believe that it has something to do with France’s switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1563. In the Julian calendar, the first of April marks the Spring Equinox, and the new year. Those slow to catch on to the fact that the year now began four months earlier, on the first of January, were mocked as ‘April Fools’ and would be subject to ridicule and jokes from groups of bored French people who presumably had nothing better to be doing. Their victims would often find that a paper fish had been placed on their backs and would find themselves being referred to as an “April fish” – a young, easy caught fish and gullible person. This odd behaviour is now tradition in French speaking areas of Europe and the Americas, where often people will still try and attach paper fishes to people’s backs without them noticing.
Others attribute our modern April fool’s day to a much older event: an ancient Roman festival named `Hilaria’. This was celebrated by followers of the cult of Cybele at the end of March, and Romans got the day off work to celebrate, dress up in disguise and observe public sacrifices. While already veering from the kind of bank holiday we’d be used to, Romans would also masquerade as other people. During Hilaria, imitating fellow citizens or even magistrates was allowed.
The Feast of Fools is another prominent celebration which historians believe we’re drawing inspiration from when we cling film our mate’s shower head or turn the hot water off (if you’re feeling particularly cruel) on an arbitrary day. Young people would choose to parody a mock church figure and be dubbed ‘lord of misrule’. Several ridiculous ceremonies would then take place to ‘consecrate’ the new archbishop, bishop or abbot, essentially culminating in a big messy party in the nearest church building. Naturally, the medieval church thought the festival was too much fun, and spent centuries attempting to stop it until it was finally was discontinued and forbidden in 1431.
Above are just some of the events which may have led to the tradition of pranking our peers on the first of April. It should be noted that this is observed across countless cultures and groups around the world, and different factors could contribute to the popularity of the phenomenon in various countries.
Although the tradition can be controversial for some, the spirit behind April fool’s day for most is light-hearted fun and a departure from the more serious nature of our world. It has also evolved to encompass other things, with hoax broadcasts and news headlines being commonplace, as well as bizarre marketing campaigns and publicity stunts. I’ll be spending the morning thinking about how I neglected my coursework last night in order to write a research article about April fool’s day, but I guess that’s a me problem.
Header designed by Annabel Smith, Assistant Head of Design
Edited by Uchenna Omo-Bamawo, Label’s Culture Editor