April Fools Day – an hysterical perspective

 “April the first stands mark’d by custom’s rules,
A day for being, and for making fools: —
But, pray, what custom, or what rule supplies
A day for making, or for being — wise?”

 – Rev. Samuel Bishop, 1796

Photo:Johnny Hughes https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonny2love/

No-one knows for sure the origins of April Fools Day. Some hold that it dates back to antiquity and the celebration of the arrival of Spring. The long winter over and with life-renewing all around, it is a time for happiness and jollity. It is a time for tomfoolery…. it is a time for love – with softened senses and increased desire! Think the mad March hare….

The predominant theory holds that the origin of the April Fools Day tradition dates from about 1582, the year France adopted the Gregorian Calendar, which switched the beginning of the year from what is now the end of March (around the time of the vernal equinox) to the first of January. According to popular lore, some folks, out of ignorance and/or stubbornness, continued to ring in the New Year on April first and were made the butt of jokes and pranks (“poissons d’avril,” or “April Fish”) on account of their “foolishness.” This became an annual celebration that ultimately spread throughout Europe and other parts of the world.

However…. there are a number of facts which put doubt on this popular theory:

The ancient Romans celebrated a festival on March 25 called Hilaria, marking the occasion with masquerades and “general good cheer.”

Holi, the Hindu “festival of colours” observed in early March with “general merrymaking” and the “loosening of social norms,” is at least as old as Hilaria.

The Jewish festival of Purim has a long, colourful history as well. Coinciding with the advent of spring, it is celebrated annually with costume-wearing, carnivals, and pranks.

In 1508, French poet Eloy d’Amerval referred to a pioisson d’avril, possibly the first reference to the celebration in France.

Some writers suggest that April Fools’ originated because, in the Middle Ages, New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25 in most European towns (to coincide with the arrival of Spring one imagines – most likely a hangover from pagan traditions), with a holiday that in some areas of France, specifically, ended on April 1, and those who celebrated New Year’s Eve on January 1 made fun of those who celebrated on other dates by the invention of April Fools’ Day.

The use of January 1 as New Year’s Day became common in France only in the mid-16th century, and the date was not adopted officially until 1564, by the Edict of Rousillion.

So It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the calendrical changes of the 16th and 17th centuries served more as an excuse to codify a general spirit of mirth already associated with springtime, the season of rebirth and renewal, than as the sole inspiration for a pranksters’ holiday.

So what of the traditions?

Convention has it that it is ok to play jokes on unsuspecting victims up ‘till Noon. After that, the fool is the one persisting with the falsity.

Some have expressed the belief that the origins of April Fool’s Day tradition may go back as far as the Genesis Flood narrative.   The London Public Advertiser of March 13, 1769, printed: “The mistake of Noah sending the dove out of the ark before the water had abated, on the first day of April, and to perpetuate the memory of this deliverance it was thought proper, whoever forgot so remarkable a circumstance, to punish them by sending them upon some sleeveless errand similar to that ineffectual message upon which the bird was sent by the patriarch”.

In 1561, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on April 1.

In 1686,  John Aubrey referred to the celebration as “Fooles holy day”, the first British reference. On April 1, 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to “see the Lions washed”. People would show up only to realize they’d been tricked. No lions, no washing, no nothing….

The street prank worked so well that people kept pulling it year after year, targeting mostly out-of-towners. By the mid-19th century, pranksters had printed up fake tickets.

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 a 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. The Scots were always adept at kicking others in the arse….

A number of recent April Fools tricks are worthy of mention – some with connotations to the present….

Running for president

“I never did anything wrong, and I won’t do it again,” said former President Richard Nixon, announcing that he would run for president in 1992 (Nixon had resigned from the presidency on August 9, 1974, in the face of almost certain impeachment and removal from office). But the man speaking wasn’t Nixon, and the news segment that aired the announcement wasn’t real. National Public Radio’s piece on Nixon’s 1992 presidential run is one of its most famous April Fools’ Day pranks. Not only did people believe it, but they were also outraged. “A lot of people’s worst dream was Nixon running again. The idea that he would run again was absurd, but it played on their fears so much that thousands of people believed it.”

Does this make you think of someone else down south?

Lenin’s corpse

On April 1, 1995, the Irish Times announced that the Walt Disney Corporation had entered into an agreement with the Russian government to purchase the embalmed remains of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, to put on display at the Euro Disney Theme Park. The founder of Bolshevism and the driving force behind the creation of the Soviet Union would be given “the full Disney treatment,” the article promised, with strobe lights and T-shirt sales. Make you think of someone in Russia today?

Left handed toilet paper:

Why should right-handers be closer to cleanliness? In 2015, Cottonelle tweeted that it was introducing left-handed toilet paper for all those southpaws out there.

Few people may have been taken in by Cottonelle, but that wasn’t the case in 1973, when Johnny Carson cracked a joke about a toilet paper shortage. Worried Americans immediately stocked up.

Does this make you think of the recent ‘runs’ on toilet paper?

Planetary Alignment Decreases Gravity:

April 1, 1976, during an early-morning interview on BBC Radio 2, the British astronomer Patrick Moore announced that at 9:47 AM that day a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur. Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, and this planetary alignment would temporarily counteract and lessen the Earth’s own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment the alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation. When 9:47 AM arrived, the station began receiving hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman reported that she and her friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room. Moore had intended his announcement to be a spoof of a pseudoscientific theory that had recently been promoted in a book called The Jupiter Effect, alleging that a rare alignment of the planets was going to cause massive earthquakes and the destruction of Los Angeles in 1982.

Oh, and then there was the spoof of Swiss farmers having a bumper harvest of spaghetti, with a documentary by the BBC in 1957 showing them harvesting it from trees….

Enough about the tomfoolery of others:

The LDHS would like to offer a sumptuous prize to whoever sends in the most hilarious April Fools Day prank that you or your family/friends have been involved with. Entries will be judged by a most prestigious jury… and shared on this site.  Send you entries to info@ladysmithhistoricalsociety.ca