March 31, 2017 Column
April Fool’s Day
What will you do tomorrow? Planning any jokes or pranks?
It has become a tradition on April 1st to pull jokes and harmless pranks on unsuspecting friends. We plot and scheme—and often the jokes and yuks are funnier in our imagination than they are in reality. But that doesn’t stop us. Even the most staid among us have been known to indulge in a practical joke of one kind or another from time to time.
Public entities like radio and tv stations have indulged in some classic pranks. In 1957, the BBC broadcast a spoof documentary which convinced viewers that the Swiss were growing spaghetti in trees. In 2000, Taco Bell bought a full–page ad in the New York Times to publicize the news that Taco Bell had bought the Liberty Bell to help reduce the national debt. They renamed it “The Taco Bell Liberty Bell”.
National Public Radio has also pulled some classic pranks. In 1992, they announced that Richard Nixon would run for President again with the slogan, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” Other pranks include a report about farm–raised whales in 2009 and a report that Twitter was reducing its character count to 133 in 2012.
So how did this all get started? Let me tell you. No one really knows!
There is lots of speculation about the origin of April Fool’s Day. Much of it focusses around the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar (which is what we use today) in 1582.
The Julian calendar was established by Julius Caesar (hence the name) in 45 BCE. It was based on the lunar cycle and quite complicated to use. It also had a small built–in error which meant that this calendar went out by a day every 128 years. Nevertheless, it lasted over 1600 years.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered the change to a new calendar, which was called the Gregorian calendar, named after the Pope. This calendar was aligned with the sun and was more accurate.
One of the other changes in the new calendar concerned the date of new year. In many ancient cultures, New Year’s Day was celebrate on or around April 1—soon after the vernal equinox, which falls on March 20 or 21. It makes a certain amount of sense. The new year begins in the spring, the season of renewal and the awakening of the earth in the northern hemisphere.
The Gregorian calendar, however, decreed that the New Year was to be celebrated on January 1. After that change, if you could fool someone into believing that the new year still began on April 1, you could call that person an “April fool”.
Well … maybe.
There are other explanations. One is that many cultures celebrate the arrival of spring with days of happiness and foolishness. Ancient Romans had a day called “Hilaria” on March 25, celebrating Attis, the god of vegetation. The Hindu religion celebrates “Holi” in early March, commemorating the wheat harvest in spring. Jews celebrate Purim, a festival of celebration marking the time Queen Esther saved the Jews from the Persians.
Each of these festivals was marked by a carnival–like atmosphere, with noisemakers and costumes and general revelry and lots of good food and drink.
Wherever and whenever the custom began, it has developed its own lore and set of unofficial rules. If you are superstitious, you know that the pranks must end at noon, or else you will suffer bad luck. Additionally, if you fail to respond to a prank with good humour, you will also find some bad luck plaguing you.
Whatever you end up doing, a day of merriment like this can be a wonderful gift after a long winter such as we have had. It’s a brief moment to let our hair down (provided you still have some!) and giggle or chortle or guffaw or snicker or roll in the aisle or split your sides or even to cacchinate.