Depending on which account you study, April Fools’ Day has been around for thousands of years or somewhat less. Stories (and some hoaxes) abound regarding the first celebration of April 1 as a day of foolishness and merriment. Most seem to tie the day into a new-year-like time when winter has mostly ended and the earth is reborn with the arrival of spring traditionally in Northern Hemisphere and European countries. In fact, New Year’s used to be calculated as beginning a week or so from April 1.
One neat story of origin says that the Roman Emperor Constantine granted his court jesters one day, April 1, to run the empire after they had claimed they could do a better job of it than the monarch himself. Their idea of empire-management was to play pranks and make crazy royal proclamations — all in good fun and only for one day. This event first came to light in 1983 when Boston University History Professor Joseph Boskin broke the story — not long after he had made the whole thing up.
I generally think of good April Fools’ jokes sometime in July or August. I don’t ever remember playing a trick on anyone on the actual April Fools’ Day, and if I did, it probably wasn’t memorable, or I would remember it — right?
A quick check on the Internet will turn up dozens if not hundreds of clever things one could do to one’s friends, relatives, co-workers or even total strangers. Some of them are really elaborate, some just bizarre, some pretty risky (such as the one where you make copies of your office-mate’s car keys, then use the new key to move his car around the parking lot a little different and a little more each day for a few days). That sounds really funny and a good way to get shot.
I had a colleague years ago when I taught junior high school in Davis. He was a Class-A practical joker. His name was Del. His specialty was using purloined letterhead stationery to simulate a note from the mayor or the governor, or more frighteningly from the school superintendent. Sometimes it would appear to be from a fellow teacher — disgruntled because the victim (myself) had done or allegedly done something that offended that particular colleague.
I went storming into a fellow English teacher’s room one day demanding to know with what nerve she had the gall to challenge, in great detail, the way I was teaching “The Red Pony” or whatever. She was a bit more mainstream in her teaching methodology than I was at the time, and everyone knew it. I waved “her” letter of complaint in front of her face and asked for a full apology. She spent a moment reading the document.
“This sounds like Del Bryant,” she said, laughing heartily.
I was completely flummoxed, had to laugh myself, and promised revenge. Whatever I did back to him was not memorable enough to have stuck with me the way his joke has. There was a subtlety to some of his efforts that was masterful, always appeared to come out of left field and was totally unexpected. I’ll take that kind of joke any day over the flaming bag of dog poop on the front porch.
In France, they celebrate April Fish Day. They try to stick paper fish on each other’s backs and when the victim discovers it, the perpetrator cries out “poisson d’avril!” or April Fish! It’s unclear what the victim does next. Why that is so funny is hard to imagine, unless you’re French, Italian or Dutch. Italy, Holland and Belgium are right up there with the French when it comes to putting on a wacky April Fish Day. It makes me think of the grammar school trick of Scotch taping a “Kick Me” sticker on somebody’s back, hanging nearby and watching the fun. I guess the fish thing must be like that without the bruising.
One of the very best April Fools’ gags (according to the experts who track and rate such things) was when Taco Bell, on April 1, 1996, took out full-page newspaper ads announcing the company had bought the Liberty Bell as a way to help pay down the national debt. Henceforward, the treasured American icon would be known as the Taco Liberty Bell. Of course the nation was mostly outraged until noon that day when an official announcement clarified that it was, indeed, an April Fools’ joke. The “Museum of Hoaxes” rates the Taco Liberty Bell as the fourth best hoax of all time.
That there is a Museum of Hoaxes could rank right up there as well, but I think it must be real. The same entity rates the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest prank of 1957 as its Number 1 all-time April Fish Day joke. You can look that one up for a good laugh. Also, watch your back on Monday so you don’t become a poisson d’avril!
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.