Tuesday, April 01, 2008

April Fools' Day

Most of us take it for granted that New Year’s Day is January 1st. However, it doesn’t have to be. For example, the Celts, an ancient people of Europe, used to celebrate New Year’s Day at the beginning of winter. Even today, the Chinese – virtually 1/5 of all the people on Earth! – celebrate New Year’s Day according to their lunar calendar, which means each year’s celebration falls on a different date.

The early Ancient Romans used to celebrate the beginning of the year in spring. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, introduced the Julian calendar. Even though the calendar officially started in the middle of winter with the month of January, the New Year was celebrated soon after the Spring Equinox, as this was the ancient tradition. The beginning of April became a time associated with parties & formal visits to friends & business associates.

While the Julian calendar was the basis of our current calendar, it was complicated, and basically wrong. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that the Christian world – Europe and all its colonies – should adopt the Gregorian calendar. As part of this change, he also wanted everyone to celebrate the New Year on January 1st, the beginning of the calendar.

In the early years that followed the introduction of the new calendar, some people either forgot about the change or decided they didn’t want to give up the old tradition. On April 1st, they dressed in their finest clothes and visited their friends & business associates as they always had. As a joke, those “friends” would often tease them or send them on a fool’s errand [a task that is impossible to finish; “Could you go and buy me a dozen hen’s teeth, please?” would be a good example – hens don’t have teeth!].

Although the change of calendar is now long forgotten, the tradition of fooling friends or playing pranks on them on April 1st still continues. These days, it’s common for people to start the day by telling their family, friends, & workmates something that is vaguely possible, but probably not true. Sticking signs on peoples' backs with messages like “It’s my birthday,” “Kick me!” or “Call me ‘Al!’” are common pranks played on this day as well.
A classic "Kick Me!" sign
Also, the media makes a big thing of April Fools’ Day, trying to trick its audience into believing something clearly not true. One of the most successful modern-day pranks was a 1957 BBC news item about growing spaghetti, which even included film of farmers “picking” spaghetti from trees. The following day, some people called the BBC asking how they could grow their own spaghetti at home.
A photo from the BBC's April Fools' Day new report about spaghetti farming
The French call April 1st Poisson d'Avril, or "April Fish." It has been a long tradition for French children to stick a picture of a fish on the back of their schoolmates, crying "Poisson d'Avril" when the prank is discovered.

A cute cartoon of the "April's Fish" prank

A French advertisement for McDonalds Fillet-o-Fish

How will you celebrate April Fools’ Day? Can you think of any good pranks you can play on your family or friends? Remember, April 1st is usually a lot more fun for the prankster than the fool!

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