Though pranksters and joke-lovers in many countries now gleefully prepare to dupe friends and loved ones on April Fool’s Day, no one knows exactly when or why, or even where, this tradition began.
A giddy spurt of practical joking seems to have coincided with the coming of spring since the time of the Ancient Romans and Celts, who celebrated a festival of mischief-making. The first mentions of an All Fool’s Day (as it was formerly called) came in Europe in the Middle Ages.
Some trace April Fool’s Day back to Roman mythology, particularly the story of Ceres, Goddess of the harvest, and her daughter, Persephone. Pluto (or Hades), God of the Dead, abducted Persephone and took her to live with him in the underworld. The girl called out to her mother, but Ceres could only hear the echo of her daughter’s voice and searched for her in vain. Such “fool’s errands,” or wild goose chases, became a popular practical joke in Europe in later centuries.
The most widespread theory of the origin of April Fool’s Day is the switch from the old Julian to the Gregorian calendar (now in use) in the late 16th century. Under the Julian calendar, the New Year was celebrated during the week between March 25 and April 1, but under the Gregorian calendar, it was moved to Jan. 1. Those who were not notified of the change, or stubbornly kept to the old tradition, were often mocked and had jokes played on them on or around the old New Year, referring to them as the April Fools.
In France, this took the form of pranksters sticking fish on the backs of those who celebrated the old custom, earning the victims of the prank the name Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish. (“April Fish” refers to a young fish, thus one easily caught)
In Scotland, April Fool’s Day is actually celebrated for two days. April Fool’s jokes here were known as April “Gowks,” another name for a cuckoo bird. The second day is devoted to pranks involving the posterior region of the body. It is called Taily Day. The origin of the “kick me” sign can be traced to this observance.
In England, jokes are played only in the morning. Fools are called ‘gobs’ or ‘gobby’ and the victim of a joke is called a ‘noodle.’ It was considered back luck to play a practical joke on someone after noon.
In Rome, the holiday is known as Festival of Hilaria, celebrating the resurrection of the god Attis, is on March 25 and is also referred to as “Roman Laughing Day.”
The Huli Festival is celebrated on March 31 in India. People play jokes on one another and smear colors on one another celebrating the arrival of Spring.
But the theory can’t explain why the pranking tradition spread to other countries in Europe that did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until later.
Here are some of the more famous April Fools Pranks played on the public. Lets not get fooled this year…
1957: This hoax revolves around the BBC documentary of the annual spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, featuring a family plucking strands of the pasta from “spaghetti trees.” The Italian favorite was still considered an exotic delicacy in Britain at the time, and many listeners were so fooled they wanted to find out how to get a spaghetti bush of their own.
2007: Internet search engine Google announced their new Gmail Paper service, where users of the free email service could save emails to a paper archive which Google would print out and mail for free. The next year, Google invited people to sign up for a Mars exploration project.
1962: In 1962 there was only one tv channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white. The station’s technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception. All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their tv screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people were taken in. Regular color broadcasts only commenced in Sweden on April 1, 1970.
1996: The Taco Bell Corporation announced it had bought the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Hundreds of outraged citizens called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia where the bell was housed to express their anger. Their nerves were only calmed when Taco Bell revealed, a few hours later, that it was all a practical joke. The best line of the day came when White House press secretary Mike McCurry was asked about the sale. Thinking on his feet, he responded that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold. It would now be known, he said, as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
1992: National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation program announced that Richard Nixon, in a surprise move, was running for President again. His new campaign slogan was, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” Accompanying this announcement were audio clips of Nixon delivering his candidacy speech. Listeners responded viscerally to the announcement, flooding the show with calls expressing shock and outrage. Only during the second half of the show did the host John Hockenberry reveal that the announcement was a practical joke. Nixon’s voice was impersonated by comedian Rich Little.
1998: The April 1998 issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter contained an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the ‘Biblical value’ of 3.0. Soon the article made its way onto the internet, and then it rapidly spread around the world, forwarded by email. It only became apparent how far the article had spread when the Alabama legislature began receiving hundreds of calls from people protesting the legislation. The original article, which was intended as a parody of legislative attempts to circumscribe the teaching of evolution, was written by physicist Mark Boslough.
1998: Burger King published a full page advertisement in USA Today announcing the introduction of a new item to their menu: a “Left-Handed Whopper” specially designed for the 32 million left-handed Americans. According to the advertisement, the new whopper included the same ingredients as the original Whopper (lettuce, tomato, hamburger patty, etc.), but all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers. The following day Burger King issued a follow-up release revealing that although the Left-Handed Whopper was a hoax, thousands of customers had gone into restaurants to request the new sandwich. Simultaneously, according to the press release, “many others requested their own ‘right handed’ version.”
1976: The British astronomer Patrick Moore announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47 AM a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur that listeners could experience in their very own homes. The planet Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth’s own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment that this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation. When 9:47 AM arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her eleven friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room.
1994: An article by John Dvorak in PC Computing magazine described a bill going through Congress that would make it illegal to use the internet while drunk, or to discuss sexual matters over a public network. The bill was supposedly numbered 040194 (i.e. 04/01/94), and the contact person was listed as Lirpa Sloof (April Fools backwards). The article said that the FBI was going to use the bill to tap the phone line of anyone who “uses or abuses alcohol” while accessing the internet. Passage of the bill was felt to be certain because “Who wants to come out and support drunkenness and computer sex?” The article offered this explanation for the origin of the bill: “The moniker ‘Information Highway’ itself seems to be responsible for SB 040194… I know how silly this sounds, but Congress apparently thinks being drunk on a highway is bad no matter what kind of highway it is.” The article generated so many outraged phone calls to Congress that Senator Edward Kennedy’s office had to release an official denial of the rumor that he was a sponsor of the bill.
Well, there you have it. No matter how you look at it, April 1st will ALWAYS be full of pranks, foolery and even a few laughs. Let’s not get fooled this year. 🙂