I hate to even use the descriptor “holiday” when referring to April Fools’ Day (or All Fools’ Day), but there are so many idiots that look on the first day of April as an excuse to let their love of tasteless antics roam free. It’s like the Holy Day for foolishness. In my mind, that was what Halloween was for.
The origins of April Fool’ Day (AFD) are a swirling mass of myth and conjecture. The earliest recorded connection between foolishness and April 1 was written in the Canterbury Tales in 1392 by Geoffrey Chaucer. One story told of a vain rooster tricked by a sly fox, while another story was set “32 days after March” which many historians believe was interpreted as April 1. Other literary works from Flemish poet Eduard de Dene and British author John Aubrey also made reference to April 1 as being an “April Fool” and the “Fools holy day” respectively.
Another interpretation has a more religious tint. According to biblical scholars, Noah committed a foolish act when he sent forth a dove before the waters of the Great Flood had receded. He did this on the “first day” of the Hebrew month corresponding to April. Some believe that this handed-down tale propagated “festival of fools” events in parts of medieval Europe.
Yet a third belief is that the celebration of April Fools developed in various cultures simply as a lighthearted way of watching spring weather supplant the cold of winter.
But the greatest consensus of people … and really the origin story that makes the most sense … believe that April Fools’ Day is a result of the establishment of the Gregorian calendar which under the rule of Charles IX moved the start of the new year from March 25 to January 1. Prior to this date, many countries like France celebrated the new year in an eight-day celebration culminating on April 1. With news of the day traveling by foot or by horse, it took years for the new calendaring system to be adopted in rural areas. So for decades, visitors to villages celebrating the old “New Year” labeled its residents as “fools” and general ridicule and harassment took on the form of jokes and pranks. Historians believe that this unofficial “horseplay” spread from France to England and Scotland in the 18th century and later to the American colonies.
While April Fools’ Day (AFD) IS NOT a legal holiday, it is widely recognized and celebrated across the globe. In the U.S., AFD is a time of debauchery where people lower their intolerance for pranks, funny jokes, and general foolery. Good-natured hoaxes are encouraged between friends and family, and even accepted in the workplace. Over the years, pranks have evolved from simple “fibs” to elaborate hoaxes that last all day. But regardless of the complexity of the prank, the originator usually ends the farce by yelling, “April Fool!!”
Some nations have a separate “twist” on AFD. In places such as New Zealand, the UK, Australia, and South Africa, jokes and pranks on April 1 only last until noon. Anyone who plays a prank on someone later in the day is dubbed an “April Fool.” But in Scotland, AFD lasts for two days. The first day is sometimes called “Hunt-The-Gowk Day” (with “gowk” meaning a foolish person) and often celebrated by sending people on meaningless errands. The second day is called “Taily Day” with jokes focusing on people’s posteriors. The “Kick Me” sign is a very common April 1 contrivance in Scotland. In France (and French-speaking portions of Canada) and Italy, April 1 is celebrated in a very similar fashion. In France it is known as “poisson d’arril” (April’s fish); Italians call it “pesce d’aprile" (April’s fish). In both countries, the prank of the day is often trying to attach paper fish to people’s backs without them noticing. In Belgium, April 1 is often celebrated by a tradition where children lock their parent and teachers out of homes and classrooms; candy or small gifts are required to gain entry. In Poland, April 1 is “Prima Aprilis” and jokes often involve whole families, businesses, schools and universities, and social organizations. Very little serious work is accomplished in Poland on the first day of April. Probably the oldest version of a national April Fools’ Day is held in Iran. Called “Sizdah Bedar,” this day of pranks and light humor was first celebrated on the 13ih day of the Persian new year (April 1 or April 2) in 536 B.C.
There are even a few countries that celebrate a similar holiday but elsewhere on the calendar. Many Spanish-speaking nations including Mexico, Spain, and Portugal observe “dia de los Sabtos Inocentes” or “Day of the Holy Innocents.” Originally a religious remembrance celebration, this day … celebrated on December 28 … has evolved into one of pranks and partying. And in Denmark, May 1 is celebrated as “Aprilsnar” with jokes and foolishness.
When I was a kid, the common pranks were simply getting you to look when someone said “hey, your shoes are untied” or when a kid colored the edge of a quarter with a black marker and got you to role it down your head, producing a black line bisecting your face. In college, the sophistication went up a few levels. We used to sneak into friends’ rooms on April 1 and reset their clocks so they were late for classes and lunch until the figured out the prank. Or we propped a wastebasket full of water above a partially open door and called for someone to come into the room. SPLAT!!
I never worked in an office where pranks were really allowed, but I have talked to people that have celebrated AFD by sneaking onto someone’s computer when they were away from their desk and hiding files, or even people who have put a five dollar bill down on the floor just under a filing cabinet and, when someone stoops to retrieve it, loudly tearing apart a scrap of material to make the other person think they have ripped their clothing. I even heard of a group of employees who filled their boss’ office with close to 500 plastic cups full of water. The supervisor had no idea how to even start the clean up.
Even mass media has gotten into the April Fools’ Day pranking game. In the 1950s, a Dutch television news show pranked viewers during an April 1 broadcast by telling them that the Tower of Pisa in Italy had toppled over; the station was flooded with phone calls demanding more information. In1976, BBC Radio 2 colluded with a British astronomer to tell people that on April 1 at 9:47 a.m. a unique planetary alignment would lessen the effect of gravity on Earth temporarily. Hundreds of people later “confirmed” that they were able to jump higher at that exact moment; some listeners called in and reported that they were actually floating. On April 1, 1997, TV hosts Alex Trebek (Jeopardy!) and Pat Sajak (Wheel of Fortune) switched hosting duties to the delight of millions of fans. On April 1, 1998, the fast food powerhouse Burger King ran an advertisement in USA Today announcing a Whopper variation for left-handed people that rotated all the condiments 180 degrees to help lefties eat a neater burger. Thousands of customers were disappointed at counters and drive-thru windows nationwide. On April 1, 2005, the official NASA Web site promised that it would be showing photos later in the day of water found on the surface of Mars; in the afternoon several pictures were posted showing a glass of water balanced on top of a Mars candy bar. On April 1, 2008, National Public Radio (NPR) pranked its straight-laced listeners by announcing that instead of the typical cash refunds, the IRS would instead be sending recipients consumer products that “they thought they would like.” And on April 1, 2010, two commentators on an ESPN segment decided to prank the public and the press by reporting to Masters Tournament lovers that Tiger Woods, who at the time was embroiled in his sex scandal, wished to furthermore be called by his given name Eldrick. The sports channel emplyees perpetrated the prank just to see how many people would swallow the bait.
But the celebration of April Fools’ Day has had some unpopular and even lethal results. On April 1, 1984, media outlets reported the shooting death of singer Marvin Gaye. Believing the story to be a fake, fans and friends of the family reacted negatively at a time when support was needed. On April 1, 2004, Google launched its “Gmail” product to initially dismal results because post people believed its features and promised 1 GB of online storage was just an elaborate hoax. And on April 1, 1946, the Aleutian Island earthquake tsunami claimed the lives of 165 people. Although the death toll was low, reports indicate that almost no one sought shelter or reacted appropriately because they believed all warnings to be an April Fools’ Day hoax!
POINT OF RANT: Happy Birthday, Jess!!!