April 01, 2004

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Scholars mull the origins of April Fools

"The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year." -- Mark Twain


The precise origins of April Fool's day remain the subject of scholarly debate. Most agree that the beginnings are somehow tied to the festival of the vernal equinox on March 21, a moment that heralds the coming of spring when nature tends to fool us with capricious flip-flops in the weather.

Before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the1500s, New Year's celebrations typically began around March 25 and built to a climax on April 1. It had been traditional for cultures as diverse as those of the Roman empire and the ancient Hindus to celebrate New Year's as the rebirth of spring.

The custom of playing practical jokes was already part of such observances when the people of ancient India marked Huli and the Romans celebrated Hilaria (from which we get the word hilarious). Both holidays occurred around the time of the equinox. In Rome, the holiday also became known as Roman Laughing Day. Huli, set for the first full moon of the Hindu month of Phalguna, was the festival of colour. Street revellers assaulted each other with tinted powders until everyone was blanketed in gaudy colors from head to toe.

Another possible precedent for April Fool's day involves remnants of the festival of Cerelia, an ancient Roman feast marking the story of Proserpina. In the Roman myth, Proserpina was abducted by the god Pluto while she was gathering lilies. Proserpina's mother Ceres, devastated by the kidnapping, immediately undertook a futile search for her daughter. The hopelessness of Ceres' mission has left us with the figure of speech, “a fool's errand.”

Many early festivals permitted foolery and trickery aimed at those in power, probably as a sort of social safety valve to allow those at the bottom of rigid social hierarchies to vent their pent up frustrations. Bosses, teachers, and people who put on airs remain favourite targets for April Fool's pranksters to this day. The Saturnalia, a Roman holiday observed at the end of December, included a number of themes of this sort. In addition to dancing, carousing, and the exchange of gifts, slaves were allowed to pretend that they ruled their masters and a mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps, reigned for the day. By the fourth century CE, many of the traditions of the Saturnalia had transformed into observances associated with Christmas. Some of its leftover rituals may well have melded into forerunners of April Fool's day. Ethnologists think this transformation may also have been cross-fertilized by popular Northern European festivals whose customs made sport of the hierarchy of the Druids.

During the middle ages, a number of revels emerged which probably contributed additional bits to the April Fool's day prototype. Northern Europeans had long observed an ancient festival to honour Lud, the Celtic god of humour, but the most important predecessor was the Festus Fatuorum (the Feast of Fools), another descendant of the Roman Saturnalia. On this occasion (mostly observed in France) celebrants elected a mock pope and burlesqued church rituals. Not surprisingly, the church tried its best to quash such affronts but the observance survived well into the 16th century. When the church finally succeeded in suppressing the Feast of Fools, irreverent merrymakers switched their attentions to Mardi Gras and Carnival.

The modern expression of April Fool's day is thought to have taken shape in France. Before King Charles IX adopted Pope Gregory's calendar in 1582, thereby accepting Jan. 1 as the beginning of the year, French New Year's celebrations culminated around April 1. It had been customary to give gifts on the first day of the year. After New Year's Day switched to Jan. 1, unsophisticates who clung to the April 1 custom came to be known as April fools. When the date changed, those who failed to acknowledge the new routine began to be ridiculed with mocking gifts and ruses such as invitations to nonexistent celebrations.

Among their other antics, pranksters would surreptitiously attach paper fish to their victims' backs. Eventually, those who were the butt of such mischief came to be known as a poisson d'avril or April fish. Some commentators contend that the name is actually a reference to the fact that a young, naive fish is most easily hooked.

The English ratcheted up April Fool's day observances during the 18th century and brought the custom with them to North America. Those on the receiving end of the pranks were known as noodles. According to English tradition, tricks can be played only in the morning because it is bad luck to play a practical joke on someone after noon. In Scotland, a favorite April fool's spoof was to send gullible folks out to hunt the cuckoo. The butts of these ruses were known as April gowk, a name also used for the cuckoo bird. April Fool's day is sometimes referred to there as April Gowk day. The word gowk is derived from the word geck, which means “someone easily imposed upon.”

Also in Scotland, April Fool's day was once prominently associated with mischief involving the buttocks and, as such, was called Taily day. The origins of the Kick Me sign are said to be traceable back to these naughty capers. In Portugal, April Fool's is celebrated on the Sunday and Monday before Lent. The traditional trick is to throw flour at one's friends. The Mexican equivalent of April Fools' day is celebrated on the Dec. 28.

Especially since the advent of mass media, hoaxes have become a tradition around April Fool's day. Even normally staid reporters consider April Fools' day hoaxes fair game. Exposing them has become an annual pastime. The worldwide growth of the internet has assisted pranksters greatly in their calling. Among the more audacious April Fool's day media hoaxes compiled by Alex Boese in his Museum of Hoaxes are:Smell-o-vision: The BBC announced it was conducting a trial of new technology that allows the transmission of odours over the airwaves. Despite the lack of any such capability, many viewers contacted the BBC to report the trial's success.

Spaghetti trees: The BBC television program Panorama ran a famous hoax in 1957, showing the Swiss harvesting spaghetti from trees. Many viewers called the station, wanting trees of their own.

Metric time: Repeated several times in various countries over the year, this hoax claims that the time system will be changed to one in which each subdivision is some power of zero smaller than the next. Irate members of the audience call to protest every time.

Tower's demise: Dutch television news reported that the Leaning Tower of Pisa had toppled. Many shocked and distraught people besieged the studio.

Television licence: Another year, Dutch television reported that the government had a new way to detect television sets for which the householder had not payed the annual licence fee, simply by driving through the streets with a new detector. The only way to avoid being caught was to wrap the television in aluminum foil. Within hours aluminum foil supplies were exhausted throughout the country.

Barry Beyerstein teaches in the SFU psychology department and lives on April Road in Port Moody.

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