Review Feature

Holiday of fools

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

How did April Fools' Day originate?

Did some biblical-times prankster decide to switch the frankincense and the myrrh? Was there a historic epidemic of spring fever-tomfoolery in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition? Did a turn-of-the-19th-century New Yorker find a cockroach in his coffee cup and decide to recreate the experience for his jerky brother-in-law?

No, no and no.

But as it turns out, that last scenario isn't far off the mark.

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter L. Furbish, April Fools' Day was inadvertently launched back in 16th-century France a time and place where New Year's Day was celebrated during the advent of spring, from March 25 to April 1.

When the Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1564, King Charles IX proclaimed that the New Year's party should begin January 1. Diehard conservatives, however, resisted the change, and a huge political rift rose between the two factions during which the more flexible French mocked the rigid revelers by sending them foolish gifts, invitations to non-existent parties and, yes, coffee and other beverages laced with large insects (dung beetles being the most popular and easy-to-come-by) and scraps of seafood.

Back then, you see, the victim of an April Fools' Day prank was called a "poisson d'avril," or an "April fish," because at that time of year, the sun was leaving the zodiacal sign of Pisces.

April Fools' Day went international in the 18th century, first spreading to Great Britain. In Scotland, April Fools Day was 48 hours long. The second half, called Taily Day, was primarily dedicated to pranks involving the buttocks. The still-hilarious "Kick Me" sign is one example of Taily Day's gift to posterior posterity.

It was the English who introduced the custom to their colonies in America and that's when every jokester's favorite unofficial holiday really took off.

This country's first recorded April Fools' Day victim, in fact, was none other than George Washington. According to historian Furbish, a mischievous presidential aide crept into Washington's room late one night, borrowed our first president's famous set of wooden dentures, and painted every other splintery tooth black.

It was mid-morning, April 2nd, before Washington figured out why everyone in the Capitol giggled as he passed them in the halls.

"Unfortunately, Washington did not have a particularly keen sense of humor, and he promptly fired his entire staff of 36, including his own beloved horse groomer, Stubby," Furbish writes in his new book, "America: Paradise of Fools" (Meatda Press; $24.95).

Although none of the president's axed assistants ever recovered from their sudden loss of employment (32 committed suicide and four became Young Republicans), the day turned out pretty well for Washington. That very afternoon, he assembled a brand new staff and made his famous crossing of the Delaware River.

Since that time, of course, April Fool's Day has become an occasion celebrated around the world. And no single professional group has pursued the ritual with so much enthusiasm as the media.

On various April Fools Days past, the international press has maintained a remarkable straight face while reporting that ...

Britain's Queen Elizabeth had launched her own Internet site, complete with an interactive tour of Buckingham Palace led by Her Highness herself.

Russia's military had developed diamond-studded grenades for nouveau-riche gangsters.

Walt Disney had purchased Hadrian's Wall, built by the Romans to separate Scotland from England.

Passengers on Lufthansa Airlines could find themselves seated next to a potential mate, thanks to a ticket-booking system with computer dating and matchmaking capabilities.

Some media-sponsored April Fool gags have backfired. New Zealand police and commuters were angered when a group of killer whales stranded near Wellington's inter-island ferry terminal which brought traffic to a near halt turned out to be rubber dorsal fins attached to wooden blocks.

Among the most famous and fondly recalled journalistic gags was sent out on the Associated Press wires and reprinted in newspapers around the world by editors who clearly failed to get the joke. The story began:

"VATICAN CITY (AP) In a joint press conference in St. Peter's Square this morning, Microsoft Corp. and the Vatican announced that the Redmond software giant will acquire the Roman Catholic Church in exchange for an unspecified number of shares of Microsoft common stock. If the deal goes through, it will be the first time a computer software company has acquired a major world religion.

"With the acquisition, Pope John Paul II will become the senior vice-president of the combined company's new Religious Software Division, while Microsoft senior vice-presidents Michael Maples and Steven Ballmer will be invested in the College of Cardinals, said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates ..."

Observes historian Furbish: "That's the best kind of April Fools' Day prank; when you just make up a whole bunch of stuff and dare people to believe it."

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