How April Fools Got Their Start



Yesterday was April Fool's Day, a day that has no formal recognition as a holiday anywhere in the world and yet every schoolchild knows about it. I confess it is not my favorite mark on the calendar. But the day does have a history.

The idea may have begun with the Roman festival called Hilaria (our word hilarious). It honored the goddess of nature and was celebrated at the vernal equinox, which this year was March 20.

A more likely beginning for April Fool's Day was in 16th century France, where the first of the year was observed on April 1. There were parties and dancing late into the night, much as New Year's Eve is celebrated in America. However, in 1562, Pope Gregory introduced a new calendar designating the New Year to fall on Jan 1. There were some people, however, who did not want to change. Imagine that. They continued to celebrate New Year's Day April 1, and opened themselves up to being called "April Fools."

It became the custom to play tricks on these "foolish" people. They were sent on "fool's errands" (Did you ever go on a snipe hunt?) or they were made to believe something false was true.

Today, the French children still mark the day by playing tricks on their friends. For example, they tape a paper fish to someone's back, and when it is discovered that prankster yells "April Fish!" The implication is that the person is a sucker, easily caught. Pastry shops display chocolates and cakes of all sizes in the shape of a fish. These would be sent anonymously to another person, hoping to keep them guessing who sent it and why.

The April Fool custom quickly went to England and Scotland where it became an annual prankster's day. The unwary were given sealed and urgent notes to carry to a friend, who would open them and read something embarrassing about the messenger. Children who had forgotten the day might be sent to buy a pound of elbow grease, a left-handed screwdriver or tickets to the washing of the white lions at the Tower of London.

The custom of playing small tricks on friends spilled over into America. A typical expression of this is to point to someone's shoe and say, "Your shoelace is untied." When they look the prankster calls out, "April Fool!" Moving up the scale, school children might tell a classmate that school has been cancelled. Whatever the trick, if the victim falls for the joke the trickster calls, "April Fool!" We label most of this foolishness as "practical jokes," and they are not all appreciated. Putting salt in the sugar bowl, or unscrewing the saltshaker, setting the clock an hour behind are typical. How about sucking the eggs dry and replacing them in the refrigerator? The cleverest April Fool joke is the one that enables everybody to laugh, including the one on whom the joke is played.

Then there is the true story, from some years ago, of the small-town newspaper editor who determined to enjoy April Fool's Day. That day headline of The Gazette read, in large block letters, "Soviet News Agency Tass Buys the Gazette." The story asserted, "it was the first expansion of the Communist media giant outside of the Iron Curtain...

The new publisher, Vydonch U. Kissov, promised that his paper would be "thoroughly red." Several paragraphs down the untimely and sudden deaths of the paper's current editors were noted. The "new publisher" promised a whole new social philosophy for the paper as well as a home delivery system by cruise missiles.

Early the next morning the phone rang at the newspaper's office. The gentleman on the other end said he knew it was bound to happen, and that it was only a matter of time before all the newspapers in the country would be Communist-controlled. The editor explained that this was an April Fools' Day prank. There was a long pause, and then the caller said, "You expect me to believe a bunch of Commies?"

Practical jokes never appealed to me for some reason, and that must make me pretty stodgy. But in these sorrowful times we perhaps need to rediscover April Fool's day and have a few spontaneous laughs.

Certainly the Rim country ranch folks were experts at practical jokes. Winona Haught, wife of the late Richard Haught, told me about the time Zane Grey's two bears, Teddy and Topsy, got out of their pen at the Haught place when Richard was a young lad. He called to his sister Myrtle to help him corral them, but the bear ran into the outhouse.

"You hold the door and I'll go in a get her," Richard told his younger sister. As soon as he was in there with the bear Myrtle closed the door and latched it on the outside. There was a great commotion and Richard had to kick the door open to escape. "That bear was gettin' mean in there," Richard added as we talked in their Globe home. "I come out with the bear!"

Pulling such punches on one another was daily fare for cowboys. Let me know some of those jokes that came down through the years, like substituting a smaller size for a cowboy's boots. We'll tell about them next year on April 1.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.