April Fool’s Day: Historically speaking

By Jim Lee: PNT columnist

Since we survived Friday’s April Fools’ pranks, it’s time to look forward to the spring rebirth in our annual cycle. By the way, the first day of spring (two weeks ago today) and April Fools’ Day have much in common.

April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day, began in France back in the 1500s as a day to subject a victim to a practical joke and thereby make that person the “April Fool.”

The French also called this unfortunate soul a “poisson d’Avril,” meaning “April fish” in English.

Although the French started this socially accepted form of torture, the British get credit for bringing it to what is now the United States. According to Mark Twain, “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.”

The tradition may have its roots in the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1562 (adopted in France 20 years later, and not until 1752 in England and its colonies). The start of the year changed from April 1 to Jan. 1. Some people forgot about the change and were called fools over it. They even got invited to non-existent New Year’s parties and received gag gifts.

I don’t know why the French called them “fish,” maybe it was the 16th century version of “freedom fries.” More likely it was because French children would tape a paper fish to another child’s back on April 1 and yell “Poisson d’Avril!” when the victim discovered the joke played on him/her.

Before Pope Gregory XIII came up with a new calendar, April 1 was the first day of the year. Because it closely followed the vernal equinox, it was also called the first day of spring.
So April Fools’ Day is what became of both New Year’s Day and the first day of spring. This sure brings up some new pictures of spring fever, doesn’t it?

Most of us relate the first day of April to pranks, and some really cool gags have been pulled off over the years. Want some examples? Of course you do.

In 1957, anchor Richard Dimbleby of the British television news show Panorama announced that a mild winter had all but eradicated the notorious spaghetti weevil. Footage of Swiss farmers picking pasta off spaghetti trees was shown. The BBC received hundreds of calls, and requests for information on growing these trees. The BBC suggested placing a sprig of spaghetti in tomato sauce and hoping for the best.

On April 1, 1996, Taco Bell announced it had purchased the Liberty Bell and had renamed it the “Taco Liberty Bell.” The National Historic Park in Philadelphia, home of the authentic Liberty Bell, received hundreds of citizen complaints. White House spokesperson Mike McCurry contributed to the gag by announcing Ford Motor Company had bought the Lincoln Memorial and had renamed it the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial.

Here’s one Jeff Foxworthy might like: A Mark Boslough article in the April 1998 issue of New Mexicans for Science and Reason claimed the Alabama state Legislature changed the value of pi to the “Biblical value” of three. The Legislature received hundreds of protests. I guess folks didn’t see it was a parody of anti-evolution laws.

So the next time we see some weird claim announced to the world, maybe we should check the date and our gullibility rating. And remember: We don’t need to save up our laughs for April Fools’ Day or get them at the discomfort of others.

Happy spring.

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail:
dr_james_lee@hotmail.com