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A short (totally sincere) history of April Fools’ Day

5 min read

April is here.
A month of cherry blossoms and light dresses, birds twittering and taxes being filed.
And, of course, peak harvest season for Switzerland’s world-famous spaghetti crop, which, thanks to an exceptionally mild winter, was experiencing a absolutely prolific year in 1957.
If you’re thinking, “WTF?” well, then, good on you for being better informed than the average BBC viewer at the time.
When the British news network aired a report about Swiss spaghetti farmers plucking long strands of pasta straight from tree branches, hundreds of credulous viewers wrote in asking how they could cultivate their own spaghetti tree.

April begins with a day of fun and jokes, the so called April Fool’s Day.
No one really knows when this custom began but it has been kept for hundreds of years, by different cultures.
The term “All Fools,” was probably meant as a deliberate stab at All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2) Day.

It is commonly believed that the curious custom came about because of the change of calendars.
In short, in 1582, Pope Gregory introduced a new calendar called the Gregorian calendar which is the calendar we still use today.
In the Julian calendar, the old calendar, New Year was celebrated from March 25th to April 1st, while the first day of the Gregorian calendar is January 1st.
Although the origin of playing practical jokes and pranks on this day is hazy, many folklorists believe it may go back to 16th-century France, when the country switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563.
At that time, New Year’s Day was March 25, with a full week of partying and exchanging gifts until April 1. After 1582, when the Gregorian calendar moved New Year’s Day to January 1, those who forgot or refused to honor the new calendar were teasingly called, “April Fool!”
These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.

Historians have also linked April Fools’ Day to festivals such as Hilaria (Latin for joyful), which was celebrated in ancient Rome at the end of March by followers of the cult of Cybele. It involved people dressing up in disguises and mocking fellow citizens and even magistrates and was said to be inspired by the Egyptian legend of Isis, Osiris and Seth.
Usually celebrated March 25, Hilaria was a day for games, masquerades and generally whiling away the day with relentless mocking, not even local magistrates were immune.
The two-day Hindu celebration Holi, the Persian festival Sizdah Bedar and the Jewish holiday Purim also fall in early spring. While not explicitly about tricking people, both holidays involve various forms of merriment and frivolity — throwing colored powder, picnicking outside, dressing in costume, and more.

There’s also speculation that April Fools’ Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather.

April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century.
In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them.
Other people would play tricks on them and call them April Fools.
April Fool jokes usually involve persuading someone to do something silly, including looking for hen’s teeth, striped paint, a long weight, a left-handed screwdriver or some other non-existent thing.

In modern times, people have gone to great lengths to create elaborate April Fools’ Day hoaxes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites have participated in the April 1 tradition of reporting outrageous fictional claims that have fooled their audiences.
For example, one of the great April Fool jokes took place on April 1st, 1957.
The BBC TV programme Panorama did a documentary on spaghetti farmers growing spaghetti trees.
The hoax Panorama programme featured a family from Ticino in Switzerland carrying out their annual spaghetti harvest, showing women carefully plucking strands of spaghetti from a tree and laying them in the sun to dry.
The joke was an enormous success, with hundreds of people who believed there was such things as spaghetti trees.
Soon after the broadcast ended, the BBC began to receive hundreds of calls from puzzled viewers.
Did spaghetti really grow on trees, they wanted to know, while others were eager to learn how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.
To this the BBC reportedly replied that they should “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

In 1985, Sports Illustrated writer George Plimpton tricked many readers when he ran a made-up article about a rookie pitcher named Sidd Finch who could throw a fastball over 168 miles per hour.
In 1992, National Public Radio ran a spot with former President Richard Nixon saying he was running for president again… only it was an actor, not Nixon, and the segment was all an April Fools’ Day prank that caught the country by surprise.
In 1996, Taco Bell, a popular fast-food restaurant chain, duped people when it announced it had agreed to purchase Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell.
In 1998, after Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper,” scores of clueless customers requested the fake sandwich.
Google notoriously hosts an annual April Fools’ Day prank that has included everything from “telepathic search” to the ability to play Pac Man on Google Maps.
Other April fool jokes online included Ask Jeeves promising a humanoid search robot that will “find your car keys” and Google Gulp, a “smart drink” that makes you more intelligent and less thirsty.
For the average trickster, there is always the classic April Fools’ Day prank of covering the toilet with plastic wrap or switching out sugar and salt.

Off topic: Weather folklore states, “If it thunders on All Fools Day, it brings good crops of corn and hay.”

Images from web – Google Research