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Do You Know the History Behind April Fools' Day?

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Consider this a warning: While you might be focusing on upcoming Easter or Passover celebrations, you could get blindsided by an April Fools' Day prank on Wednesday.

Where did such an idea for a day come from, anyway?

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The prevailing theory is a tale of two calendars. Julius Caesar came up with his own in 46 B.C., and honored Janus, the god of new beginnings, by starting the year off Jan. 1. When Christianity began taking hold, however, many Christians wanted to celebrate April 1 as New Year's Day, because seasonally that day was closest to Easter. Since Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, starting the year on that day was a suiting commemoration.

Other cultures also saw April 1 as a fitting way to begin the year, as it was closest to the vernal equinox, the time when the whole earth was being renewed with springtime life.

Then, Pope Gregory XIII came along with his own calendar. He wanted to get everyone on the same page, so he "officially" marked Jan. 1 as the day the new year would begin.

But there were still folks who clung to April 1 and were ridiculed for their stubbornness. They were April fools.  And, let's face it, if a person is confused as to which day is which, wouldn't they fall for silly pranks and hoaxes as well?

We, of course, play tricks on April 1 here in America, but the day of hoaxing is also big in Brazil, Canada and England. In Scotland, they celebrate two days in a row. The first day is called "Hunt the Gowk Day." A gowk is a cuckoo bird, but the whole hunting part is akin to our snipe hunt tradition.  The second day specifically targets peoples' hind quarters — in fact, it's rumored that sticking a "kick me!" sign on someone's back had its origin from this Scottish tradition.

In France, they call it "Fish Day" (Poisson d'Avril) because people stick paper fish on each other's backs.

The Jewish people have their own days of hoaxy fun on Purim, a celebration of overcoming a plot to destroy the Jews and recounted in the Book of Esther. Celebrated in early spring, past pranks pulled include video footage of UFO's flying over the Temple Mount, and a plan to sell Western Wall space to advertisers.

There have been some doozie April Fool's pranks perpetrated down through the ages — the Museum of Hoaxes has the top 100.

No. 1 on their list came way back on April 1, 1957 with "The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest." A British news magazine television program called "Panorama" aired a 2 1/2-minute segment featuring a bunch of people in trees pulling down long strings of spaghetti. They said there was a bumper crop that year because the "spaghetti weevil" had greatly diminished in the region — and there was a very mild winter. When gullible folks called the station for advice on growing their own spaghetti trees, they were instructed to "place a sprig of spaghetti" into a can of tomato sauce.

Image source: Spaghetti Harvest TV report

Getting sucked in by a goofy prank or sneaky trick can be a humbling experience. Perhaps Mark Twain gave us the best perspective of April Fools' Day: "The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year."

Want more fun?  Watch the original broadcast of "The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest" on YouTube, and take an April Fools' Day quiz here.

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