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Love it or hate it, April Fools’ Day is here to stay — and not just in the United States. Some trace the holiday's origins back to The Canterbury Tales, in which a fox tricks a rooster on “Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two” — a date some have interpreted as March 32, or April 1. Others contend that it all began in France, where New Year's celebrations ended on April 1 during the Middle Ages.
While we may never know who to thank for the annual day of jokes and pranks, we do know that on April 1, we’re just as likely to once again let our guards down and be fooled — despite telling ourselves that this would be the year we wouldn’t let it happen. While you steel yourself against that possibility, read about how 12 other countries celebrate the silliest day of the year.
After executing a successful act of prankery, Swedes don’t just yell the Swedish equivalent of “April Fools!” Rather, they shout the objectively more fun phrase, “April, April, din dumma sill, jag kan lura dig vart jag vill!” — which translates to, “April, April, you stupid herring, I can trick you wherever I want!”
Even better, anyone whose attempted tricks fail on April 1 can try again exactly one month later, when such acts are less common but not unheard of. Some attribute this tradition to Scandinavia’s famously unpredictable weather, as harsh conditions in April may upend pranksters’ plans. Should they succeed the second time around, jokesters need only shout “Maj, maj måne jag kan lura dig till Skåne” to make it official — “May, May moon, I can trick you to Skåne.” As Skåne seems like a lovely place, this probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
April Fools’ Day isn’t as widespread in South America as it is in the United States and Europe, though there are exceptions. Brazil celebrates April 1 as dia da mentira, or “day of the lie,” an occasion for people and news networks alike to tell white lies in the hopes of tricking their more gullible friends and viewers into believing them. More elaborate pranks (or brincadeiras) occur as well — some Brazilians call April 1 dia dos bobos (day of fools) — but the focus tends to be on white lies.
That isn’t an accident: The holiday was popularized in Brazil by A Mentira, a satirical publication that started the first celebration on April 1, 1828, by announcing the death of Dom Pedro, the Empire of Brazil's founder and first ruler — who would in fact be alive and well for another six years. A Mentira continued apace until 1894, when it ceased publication and informed its creditors that they could receive the money they were owed by arriving at a specified address that (of course) didn’t actually exist.
April 1 is a bit different in Iran, where Sizdah Bedar (Nature Day) is celebrated on the 13th and final day of Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration — a date that usually falls on the first or second day of April. Nature Day has a rich history that can be traced back thousands of years, and the focus is largely on outdoor picnics. Observances include throwing sprouted greens (which are part of the traditional Haft-Seen table setting used to celebrate Nowruz) into moving water — with young singles going a step further by knotting the greens' stems in hopes of finding a partner — as well as the Lie of the Thirteenth.
That’s where the pranks come in — and, according to the history books, this too is a very old tradition: The Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire, is believed to have included pranks and tricks as part of the revelry as far back as 536 B.C.
Find yourself in Paris on April 1 and you may be treated to a Poisson d'Avril, or April Fish — a paper fish that children stick onto the back of as many grown-ups as they can manage. The lighthearted tradition, which ends with the prankster in question yelling, “Poisson d'Avril!” while running away from their unsuspecting victim, dates back to 1564. Its origins are murky, but most believe it's because April 1 coincided with the end of Lent — a 40-day period when eating meat was verboten for observing Christians, but fish was acceptable.
It also used to mark the New Year, which was moved to January 1 in France by Charles IX, who made the Edict of Roussillon in 1563. Moving the dates around wasn’t popular in some circles, but those who objected to the new date were mocked by having paper fish stuck on their backs on what used to be New Year’s Day.
If you think flour belongs in the kitchen, you may want to avoid Lisbon, Porto, and the rest of Portugal for the last two days before Lent begins. That’s when the Portuguese celebrate their version of April Fools’ Day by throwing a handful of flour at friends, relatives, or anyone else unlucky enough to be caught in this particular crossfire.
The pranks in Greece come with higher stakes than they do in most other countries, as superstition dictates that anyone who successfully fools someone else will enjoy good luck for a full year. Other beliefs are rooted in the country’s agrarian traditions, with some positing that any rainfall occurring on the day in question carries healing properties and those who carry out successful pranks will be blessed with strong crops that year. If you ever see any Greeks collecting rainwater on April 1, you’ll know why.
Along with the United Kingdom, Ireland has a rule that the rest of us would do well to adopt: April Fools’ is celebrated for only half the day, with pranks ending at noon. Anyone engaged in trickery after 12 p.m. is considered a fool themself. A traditional Irish prank that used to be much more common was having someone deliver a note reading, “Send the fool further.” It was a literal fool's errand that would also include the verse, “Don't you laugh, and don't you smile, send the gowk another mile” — an instruction for the recipient to continue the gag.
Scotland’s traditions aren’t unlike those of Ireland. But while the Emerald Isle limits its celebration to half a day, Scotland is so devoted to April Fools’ Day that it extends the pranks beyond a single day. In the 18th century, April 1 marked Hunt the Gowk Day, with gowks (a Celtic word used to describe a naive or gullible person) given sealed notes that said, “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” — an instruction to give the gowk yet another sealed message to deliver to someone else, which would go on until the unsuspecting gowk realized they'd been fooled. Tallie Day, which took place on April 2, was more like what we now think of as April Fools’ Day. The two-day tradition continues and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
April 1 is just another day in Peru, but a holiday similar to April Fools’ Day occurs at the end of the year: Day of the Innocents, which falls on December 28. Though the holiday has tragic origins — it dates back to the Middle Ages and was originally dedicated to the very young boys killed in Bethlehem on Herod the Great's orders — it eventually took on a much happier connotation as people began celebrating the “Feast of the Fools” and allowing children to essentially run free for the day. As you can imagine, this led to much in the way of tomfoolery. Not content to let kids have all the fun, adults eventually joined in as well.
The Brits celebrate April Fools’ Day in much the same way as Americans do, but one of the country’s best-known pranks deserves special mention. In 1957, the BBC’s Panorama program celebrated April 1 by airing a segment on the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland — a three-minute video that featured farmers cultivating their spaghetti trees, which obviously don’t exist.
Not everyone realized this, however. Spaghetti wasn’t especially popular in England at the time — some even considered it an exotic delicacy — which led viewers to call the network to ask for suggestions as to how they might grow their own spaghetti trees. The prank was so legendary that CNN has declared it “undoubtedly the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled.”
Iraqis adopted the Western tradition of April Fools' Day decades ago, though they call it something different: Kithbet Neesan, or April Lie. While the spirit of the holiday is the same, the humor is often a little darker than what some of us are used to. In 1998, an Iraqi newspaper published a front-page story saying that U.N. sanctions against the country had been lifted, only for readers to turn to page two and find out it was a prank. And since the Iraq War, the often macabre humor was embraced as a way to cope with everyday grief and violence and “laugh for a change,” as one resident told The New York Times.
The next time you’re in Finland, open a calendar and you may notice something peculiar: April 1 isn’t there. The day’s very existence is a joke to Finns, who play most of their pranks in the morning so as to take advantage of those who’ve yet to realize what day it is. Upon successful completion of said pranks, Finns have been known to triumphantly sing, “Aprilia, syö silliä, juo kuravettä päälle!” — “It is April, eat herring and drink dirt water on top!” If you get tricked on April 1, just be thankful no one added insult to injury by telling you to drink dirt water.