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17 September 2014

The Origins of April Fool’s Day

 - Tuesday, 01 April 2008, 00:00

by Michael Carabott

My parents always told me to start the first day of every month off by saying “white rabbits” the moment I wake up. Needless to say I have never managed. There are many weird and wonderful customs such as these, but perhaps is none better than the day marked on 1st April – April Fools’ Day.

Gleaning information from the internet, one can only come to the conclusion that the origins of this custom are complex and a matter of much debate. Many say it is likely a relic of the once common festivities held on the vernal equinox, which began on 25 of March, old New Year's Day, and ended on the 2nd of April.

Though the 1st of April appears to have been observed as a general festival in Great Britain in antiquity, it was apparently not until the beginning of the 18th century that the making of April-fools was a common custom.

One of the earliest connections of the day with fools is Chaucer's story the Nun's Priest's Tale (c.1400), which concerns two fools and takes place “thritty dayes and two” from the beginning of March, which is April 1. The significance of this is difficult to determine.

Europe may have derived its April-fooling from the French. French and Dutch references from 1508 and 1539 respectively describe April Fools' Day jokes and the custom of making them on the first of April. France was one of the first nations to make January 1 officially, by decree of Charles IX. This was in 1564, even before the 1582 adoption of the Gregorian calendar (See Julian start of the year). Thus the New Year's gifts and visits of felicitation which had been the feature of the 1st of April became associated with the first day of January, and those who disliked or did not hear about the change were fair game for those wits who amused themselves by sending mock presents and paying calls of pretended ceremony on the 1st of April.

In France the person fooled is known as poisson d'avril (April fish). This has been explained as arising from the fact that in April the sun quits the zodiacal sign of the fish. The French traditionally celebrated this holiday by placing dead fish on the backs of friends. Today, real fish have been replaced with sticky, fish-shaped paper cut-outs that children try to sneak onto the back of their friends' shirts. Candy shops and bakeries also offer fish-shaped sweets for the holiday.

Some Dutch also celebrate the 1st of April for other reasons. In 1572, the Netherlands were ruled by Spain's King Philip II. Roaming the region were Dutch rebels who called themselves Geuzen, after the French “gueux,” meaning beggars. On April 1, 1572, the Geuzen seized the small coastal town of Den Briel. This event was also the start of the general civil rising against the Spanish in other cities in the Netherlands. The Duke of Alba, commander of the Spanish army could not prevent the uprising. Bril is the Dutch word for glasses, so on April 1, 1572, “Alba lost his glasses.” The Dutch commemorate this with humor on the first of April.

Well-known pranks

Alabama Changes the Value of Pi: The April 1998 newsletter of New Mexicans for Science and Reason contained an article written by physicist Mark Boslough claiming that the Alabama Legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi to the "Biblical value" of 3.0. This claim originally appeared as a news story in the 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.

Spaghetti trees: The BBC television programme Panorama ran a famous hoax in 1957, showing the Swiss harvesting spaghetti from trees. They had claimed that the despised pest the spaghetti weevil had been eradicated. A large number of people contacted the BBC wanting to know how to cultivate their own spaghetti trees. It was in fact filmed in St Albans.

Left Handed Whoppers: In 1998, Burger King ran an ad in USA Today, saying that people could get a Whopper for left-handed people whose condiments were designed to drip out of the right side.$4 Not only did customers order the new burgers, but some specifically requested the "old", right-handed burger.

Taco Liberty Bell: In 1996, Taco Bell took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times announcing that they had purchased the Liberty Bell to “reduce the country's debt” and renamed it the “Taco Liberty Bell.” When asked about the sale, White House press secretary Mike McCurry replied tongue-in-cheek that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold and would henceforth be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

San Serriffe: The Guardian printed a supplement in 1977 praising this fictional resort, its two main islands (Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse), its capital (Bodoni), and its leader (General Pica). Intrigued readers were later disappointed to learn that San Serriffe (sans serif) did not exist except as references to typeface terminology.

Metric time: Repeated several times in various countries, this hoax involves claiming that the time system will be changed to one in which units of time are based on powers of 10.

Smell-o-vision: In 1965, the BBC purported to conduct a trial of a new technology allowing the transmission of odor over the airwaves to all viewers. Many viewers reportedly contacted the BBC to report the trial's success. This hoax was also conducted by the Seven Network in Australia in 2005.

Tower of Pisa: The Dutch television news reported once in the 1950s that the Tower of Pisa had fallen over. Many shocked people contacted the station.

By far the prank kings are BMW with their Annual BMW Innovations:

Warning against counterfeit BMWs: the blue and white parts of the logo were reversed.

The "Toot and Calm Horn" (after Tutankhamun), which calms rather than aggravates other drivers, so reducing the risk of road rage.

MINI cars being used in upcoming space missions to Mars.

IDS (Insect Deflector Screen) Technology - using elastic solutions to bounce insects off the windscreen as you drive.

SHEF (Satellite Hypersensitive Electromagnetic Foodration) Technology, which sees the car's GPS systems synchronise with home appliances to perfectly cook a meal for the instant you return home.

Marque-Wiper - mini-wipers for each exterior "BMW" logo coming as standard on all future models.

Uninventing the wheel" to counter the "EU ban" on right-hand drive cars,

Zoom Impression Pixels ("ZIP") to counter new "Slow Cameras".

BMW Instant Messaging - using Reactive User Sound Electronic (RUSE) particles to display the driver's words to the car in front on the windscreen.

A compact disc available to all BMW owners, which when played over the audio system performed minor service and diagnostic checks; when flipped over it played soothing classical music (Australia).

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