The origins of April Fools’ Day are obscure. Some historians believe cultural precedents were the Hilaria (from the Latin, “hilarious”) ancient Roman festivals celebrated about April 1 after the vernal or spring equinox—when finally days are longer than nights, with more sunlight than darkness—to honor Cybele, mother of the Roman gods. Hilaria generally meant rejoicing, a time of play.
And so it was for centuries throughout the medieval era that generations of people considered the time about April 1 as the start of a regenerating new year in spring. After the Roman Catholic Church set the standard of Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day in the Gregorian calendar of the 1580s, its supporters may have dubbed those who thought otherwise as “April fools,” making fun of them.
Still, April 1 remained special, flourishing especially in Europe as a day for pranks, or mischie-vous tricks. One of the most common was to pin a paper fish to a victim’s back without being noticed, a practice called “April fish.” Eventually pranks developed into hoaxes, something more elaborate to trick or fool others. April 1 in tradition became April Fools’ Day. Victims were the new April fools.
Contemporary media outlets often participate enthusiastically in April Fools’ Day because they have the resources to make their information seem credible. College newspapers sometimes publish entire April Fools’ Day editions. In 1957, when BBC TV broadcast a “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest” phony video of farmers picking freshly grown spaghetti from trees, they were flooded with requests to buy plants. And every year, NPR in the U.S. does extensive reports on April 1, such as its piece on iBods—new technology serving as portable body control devices.
– Dr. Paul Hudson