When we were in school this was the day when we were on high alert—looking over our shoulder, and wary about opening packages and envelopes; while at the same time planning silly pranks to play on family and friends. Whether the attempts on both sides were a hit or a flop, perhaps the highlight was the gleeful shouts of “April Fool”!
Interestingly, this is one day that does not have any specific geographical, cultural or religious significance but it is universally marked by fool-hearted fun and frolic. And yet, it is a day with a long, and somewhat hazy history. While it has been celebrated for many centuries by different cultures, there are several theories about its exact origins.
Some historians speculate that it may have originated in 16th century Europe when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, the spring equinox which fell around the first of April was thought of as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar, but in 1582, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, January 1 was designated as the start of the new year. As the stories go, it was a while before everyone found out about this change, and adopted it. Those who were ignorant about the change, or who refused to accept it, and continued to celebrate it in March-April were the butt of derision and pranks, and were called ‘April Fools.” One of the popular pranks was to paste a paper fish on their backs, and calling them “poisson d’avril” (April fish), which referred to a young, easily caught fish, symbolising a gullible person.
Other historians feel that its precedents lie even further back to a Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria, honoring Cybele, an ancient Greek Mother of Gods, which was celebrated with parades, masquerades and jokes. In fact most cultures have some kind of festival to mark the end of winter and the return of spring which is marked by the vernal equinox. These “renewal festivals” were an occasion to invert the traditional social order for a day—children could challenge the authority of parents, and servants of masters—and tensions were diffused with boisterous hilarity and playful pranks. Anthropologists see 1 April as a modern form of a renewal festival where forms of behaviour that are normally not allowed (lying, deception, playing pranks) become acceptable, for this one day.
It is only in the 18th century that April Fools’ Day spread through Britain. With time, different parts evolved their own traditions and events to mark the day. In Scotland and Ireland, a popular prank was to send people on phony errands; someone was asked to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requested help. In fact, the message read “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” which translated means “don’t laugh, don’t smile, send the messenger another mile“. Each recipient upon reading it would send the person on to the next person with an identical message. This version of a wild goose chase was called “hunting the gowk” as gowk means a cuckoo bird, which symbolises a fool.
With time, even as its history became more blurred, the spirit of April Fools’ Day spread across the world, triggering challenges to devise and play the most elaborate and outrageous hoaxes. These were no longer confined to slapstick pranks and juvenile jokes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites also joined the tradition by publishing or broadcasting reporting outrageous reports and news that would convincingly fool their audiences.
One of the best remembered hoax was pulled off by none other than the BBC, which had an old and solid reputation for its reliable reporting. On 1 April 1957, the BBC show Panorama gave the news about a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland and aired a three-minute segment showing people harvesting spaghetti from trees. Viewers were totally taken in; many wrote in asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees! The BBC even replied: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best!”
In 1962, before the days of colour TV, a ‘technical expert’ on the Swedish national network told the public that viewing its black-and-white broadcasts through nylon stockings would enable them to view these in colour. Many Swedes seriously tried this, ruining many stockings in the effort!
The neighbouring Germans have contributed their bit of April foolery too. In 1994, a Cologne-based radio station ran a story saying that local joggers should keep their speed below ten kilometres an hour so as not to disturb squirrels during mating season; while in 2004, Berlin paper Tageszeitung reported that the American embassy would be relocating to get away from the French embassy across the street.
As the world leap-frogged from print and broadcast to virtual communication, the pranks continued, in more high tech and sophisticated forms. Google became known for its clever annual pranks on its different platforms, cooked up by its best tech minds. It goofed however when it announced the real trial launch of Gmail on 1 April 2004, and everyone thought it was a joke! Last year, April 2020, for the first time since it began its April Fools tradition in 2000, Google did not put up any pranks and jokes, as a mark of respect for the unprecedented Covid situation that the entire world had been plunged into. And Stop Press! It has decided not to do so this year also.
Once upon a time, hoaxes were a once-a-year bit of fun and games, with the guileless gowks running around to carry so-called news. Today with social media flooded 24/7 with news, views, gossip and rumours, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sieve the fake news from the real. We no longer need to wait for April 1, to fool and be fooled. The joke is on gullible us, the always-in-a-rush consumers, who unquestioningly lap it all up, and spread it far and wide. That is not funny; that is foolish. More fool me and more fool you!