April Fool's Day has become a global phenomenon, but there are regional variations in its customs and how it's celebrated.
From the 16th to 18th centuries, the prank that was most closely associated with April 1 was the fool's errand — also known as a wild goose chase or (archaically) a 'sleeveless errand'. This emphasis still endures, at least linguistically, in certain areas.
In Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium and the Netherlands, April 1 is referred to as Verzenderkesdag (fool's errand day).
Likewise, in Scotland and parts of northern England, April 1 was traditionally known as Huntigowk Day, on account of the old custom of "hunting the gowk" on the first. A gowk was a cuckoo, but on April 1 it referred to the victim who was sent on a "gowk hunt". He was asked to deliver a note that, unbeknownst to him, read, "Never laugh, never smile, Hunt the gowk another milk" (or some variation of that). Recipients of this note would duly redirect its bearer elsewhere until the victim had been run all over town.
"Hunting the Gowk" - illustration by Freeman Martin (1975)
Icelanders had a custom of hlaupa april ("running April") very similar to the gowk hunt, but with the twist that the prank was only considered to have succeeded if the victim could be tricked into crossing three thresholds before realizing what was up.
Finally, one of the oldest German expressions for perpetrating an April fool joke, dating back to the early 1600s, is 'jemanden in den April schicken'. It translates literally as 'to send someone in April'. It appears to derive from the custom of sending people on foolish errands on April 1. (See What's the earliest German reference to April Fool's Day?
In England, and other English-speaking parts of the former British empire, it's considered a rule that pranks and hoaxes are only allowed on April 1 for a limited period of time: specifically, until noon (See Rules and Customs
). After that, if someone tries to fool you, they become the fool and can be taunted with the rhyme: "April Fool's Day's past and gone, / You're the fool for making one." However, this rule only seems to hold true where English is spoken.
In northern England and Scotland, there's also an old custom of playing pranks on the 2nd of April, but only a very specific type of prank — pinning paper tails on people's back. For which reason, April 2 was known as Taily Day (or, less often, Tail-pipe Day). In some areas, the ritual was to pin a note saying something such as "Kick Me" on a person's rear.
1931: Actresses demonstrate the 'Kick Me' prank
In French and Italian an 'April Fool' is known as an 'April Fish' (French: poisson d'Avril; Italian: pesce d'Aprile).
Theories about the origin of this phrase are almost as many (and as fanciful) as theories about the origin of April Fool's Day itself. For instance, one theory is that the phrase derives from the abundance of fish found in streams and rivers during early April, and the ease with which these fish can be caught with a hook and lure. Another theory is that the phrase is a corruption of the word 'passion,' from the passion plays performed during the middle ages that would depict how Christ was sent back and forth to torment him, from Annas to Caiaphas, on to Pilate, then Herod, and back to Pilate again. However, as noted above in What's the earliest reference to April Fool's Day, 'poisson d'Avril' only acquired its modern meaning of an April fool in the late 17th century. Before then, the phrase described someone who conveyed messages between two lovers.
Whatever the origin of the phrase might be, in France, french-speaking Belgium, and Italy, the fish is the primary symbol of April Fool's Day. In these areas, it used to be customary to send humorous postcards on April 1 with pictures of fish.
A poisson d'Avril postcard, circa 1905
By contrast, in all other areas, the fool or court jester is the primary symbol of the day. In some regions of England, an April Fool used to be called an "April Noddy" — noddy being an archaic term for a fool or simpleton.
German-speaking regions also had some variant terms for the April Fool, include April ochse (ox), April kalb (calf), April esel (ass), April gans (goose), and April affe (monkey). However, all those terms are somewhat archaic, and April narr (fool) is now the most popular symbol of April Fool's Day in Germany.
In countries where the fish is the symbol of April 1, it's long been traditional for children to celebrate the day by surreptitiously pinning paper fish on the backs of classmates or people in the street. In France and Belgium, many candy shops also sell chocolate fish on April 1.
A french boy pins a paper fish on the back of his brother - Apr 1, 1963
Worldwide Media Hoaxes
During the past 100 years, media hoaxes (humorous fake stories and photos created by news organizations) have become a central part of April Fool's Day. For many people, perhaps most, such hoaxes are the most highly anticipated feature of the day.
During the 19th century, newspapers only very occasionally ran fake stories on April 1. It was during the early 20th century, particularly with the increasing use of photographs in newspapers, that media hoaxes became a central part of the celebration.
Up until the 1930s, such hoaxes were known to be a specialty of the German media, by whom they were called Zeitungsente, or 'newspaper ducks'. However, newspapers throughout Europe and North America enthusiastically picked up the custom, and since the 1980s, it's been the British media that has been most closely associated with April first hoaxing. In America, many smaller, local papers have long traditions of April 1 hoaxes (or had, since many of these newspapers no longer exist), but the larger papers that aim for a national readership (such as the New York Times
and Washington Post
) generally do not participate in the custom (though there are a few rare exceptions).
During the past four decades, news organizations in Asia, Africa, and South America began to adopt the custom of April 1 hoaxing from their counterparts in Europe and North America. In this way, the tradition of April Fool's Day has now spread throughout the entire world. However, people in Asia, Africa, and South America primarily know April 1 as a day for media hoaxes, and individuals in these regions do not, by and large, engage in pranks at home and the office in the way that (some) people in Europe and North America still do.
Worldwide Spoof Ads
Despite the popularity of media hoaxes, advertisers mostly ignored April Fool's Day throughout the 20th century — with the one exception that stores would sometimes offer April 1 sales (accompanied by slogans such as 'You'd be a fool to miss these bargains!'). This began to change during the 1980s when a few companies (such as BMW
) began to run spoof ads in British newspapers on April 1. By the 1990s, companies on both sides of the Atlantic had adopted the custom, noting the positive consumer response. (See, for example, the 1996 Taco Liberty Bell ad
that ran in major American papers). Advertisers also realized that such ads had the potential to "go viral" and be talked about long after the ad campaign was over. In other words, they offered a great "bang for the buck."
(left) A typical April fool ad from early in the 20th century, 1930;
(right) One of BMW's first April fool spoof ads. It ran in 1983.
During the 21st century, the Internet has massively accelerated the popularity of April 1 spoof advertising, because of the ease with which videos and photographs can be shared online. It has reached the point now where hundreds of companies (and even organizations such as the US Army) release spoof ads on April Fool's Day. Some advertisers note that they actually feel compelled to participate in the custom, lest people think their brand lacks a sense of humor.
And just like April fool media hoaxes before them, April fool spoof ads have become a global phenomenon.
A spoof ad for Domino's canned pizza that ran in Japan - Apr 1, 2013
April Fool Free Zones
There are pockets of resistance to April Fool's Day, particularly in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia. For instance, in 2001, Saudi Arabia's chief cleric, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, issued a fatwa decreeing that April Fool's Day was a form of organized lying practiced by unbelievers, and that Muslims therefore should not participate in the tradition. He acknowledged that many younger Muslims were beginning to adopt the custom, but said, "It is prohibited because lying is prohibited at all times and under all conditions."
April Fool's Day has also made fewer inroads into Spanish-speaking countries where the Day of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on Dec 28. This is a day for pranks and media hoaxes, very similar to April Fool's Day. But even in these countries, it is becoming more common for the media and advertisers to create hoaxes for April 1.