FYI: Where did April Fools' Day come from? And why won't it go away?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 April, 2007, 12:00am

On April 1, 1874, The New York Times stated: 'The absurd customs of All Fools' Day are fast passing away, and although there is but a yearly recurrence of the season, people are prone to tire of follies which are entirely destitute of even the slightest flavour of wit.'

The newspaper was a tad premature with this proclamation. Given its popularity with various media outlets worldwide (The New York Times, excepted), the future of All Fools' Day, or April Fools' Day, seems secure. But what of its past? It's unlikely we will ever know for certain how it began but there are many theories and similar days celebrated around the world.

Some believe the ritual of ridicule started when Pope Gregory XIII threw out the Julian calendar in 1582. France was the first country to adopt the new, Gregorian calendar, which moved New Year's Day from April 1 to January 1. As it became more accepted, those who stubbornly celebrated New Year's Day on April 1 were labelled fools and had pranks played on them.

In England, the event's origins are linked to the village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire. Local folklore recounts an incident in the 13th century when the citizens of Gotham blocked the surrounding roads because they did not want a royal highway to be built through their village. When the king's messenger went to the town to investigate, all the residents pretended to be insane. As a result, the king decided to bypass the village and the incident is celebrated on April Fools' Day.

Another possible origin is the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, during which slaves 'ruled' their masters under the auspices of the Lord of Misrule. In India, the festival of Holi in late February or early March was (and is) a playful celebration involving pranks and the throwing of coloured powder. Brazilians, meanwhile, celebrate Dia Da Mentira, or Liar's Day, on April 1.

Today, the impact of April Fools' hoaxes can be seen as a measure of the media's influence on the public's perception of reality. In 1965, for example, the BBC said it was conducting a trial of a new technology that allowed the transmission of odour over the airwaves to viewers, many of whom reportedly contacted the broadcaster to report the trial's success. This 'smell-o-vision' hoax was repeated by the Seven Network in Australia in 2005. The BBC was at it again in 2004, when

its website claimed the planets of our solar system would be renamed after characters from The Lord of the Rings, with Earth becoming Gandalf.

In the 1990s, Portuguese national TV network RTP announced the Ministry of Health would perform free breast examinations by satellite, prompting thousands of women to go out topless. In 2002, Egyptian tycoon Mohamed al-Fayed put reporters in a spin by announcing he was preparing to float Harrods on the stock market. He told journalists to contact 'Loof Lirpa' for more information. The Independent newspaper, which failed to see through the deception, branded it a 'bizarre sales stunt'.

In 2005, BMW printed a full-page advertisement in British newspapers, stating that the European Union was to ban right-hand-drive cars from mainland Europe (effectively confining every British vehicle to the UK).

The old adage 'don't believe everything you read', then, should be followed closely today.