It’s April 1 – so make sure you’re on the look our for some April’s Fool jokes. But we were wondering…how on earth did the first of April become the day it’s completely acceptable for people to play pranks on each other? And how does EVERYONE know it?

Angus Kress Gillespie, a folklorist and professor of American Studies at Rutgers University School of Arts Sciences, fills us in. (And as far as we know, this is true, and not a joke.)


Professor of American Studies and Director of the New Jersey Folk Fest Angus Gillespie

What are the origins of April Fool’s Day?

The story goes back to the 1500s in France when the Julian Calendar (established by Julius Caesar) was replaced with the Gregorian Calendar (introduced by Pope Gregory XIII and still used in most parts of the world). In the old Julian Calendar, the new year began on April 1, but with the new Gregorian Calendar, the new year was set to begin on Jan. 1.

News did not always travel fast in those days, so not everyone got the word that the start of the New Year changed to Jan. 1. They kept celebrating it on April 1, and they were widely mocked as April Fools.\

How Did This Turn Into a Day of Practical Jokes?

The practice of telling April Fool’s jokes spread rapidly, and it has continued over the last 500 years or so. These jokes work best on people who have not been paying attention to the calendar.  In telling such a joke on someone, you want to get to them early in the morning before they realize what day it is.

What are some of the best April Fool’s Jokes Over the Years?

The most effective April Fool’s jokes have come from some kind of authoritative source, such as a respected news channel or a local government. The joke must be false but believable and – . most importantly – it must be harmless or inconsequential.

Here are my three favorite: The first story deals with Big Ben, the Great Clock of Westminster in London, England.  It was on April Fool’s Day back in 1980 that the BBC announced a big change.  Big Ben’s clock face was being changed to digital, and the first person to get back to the network could win the clock hands.

My second story deals with former President Richard Nixon, who resigned from office back in 1974. Yet in 1992, National Public Radio ran a spot with Nixon saying that he was running for president again. It was very convincing, but it was not Nixon, only an actor.  It was a very effective prank.

More recently, there was an April Fool’s Day announcement by Boston Public Gardens with a warning for people not to use their cell phones to take photos of the well-known sculptures in the garden because the light emitted would damage and erode the sculptures. It was just right – very strange but kind of believable.

Do You have Any Tips for Jokesters This Year?

A word of caution about using social media to tell your April Fool’s joke. Not everyone has the same sense of humor. Think it through carefully before you post it.  You want to avoid topics that your friends might find offensive.

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