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A (Revisionist) History of April Fool's Day


Ye hath been punk'd, kind sir.

To trace the origin of April Fool's Day, turn to John 22:16 in the New Testament.

If the meaning remains obscure, some scholars suggest the tradition began around 1582 in France with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. The celebration of the new year moved to January 1st from March 25th - April 1st, a week traditionally marked by feasting and carrying on. Apparently, some people didn't get the word, while others didn't cotton to Pope Gregory XIII's newfangled calendar and continued to celebrate the new year each spring.

Diehards and saps out of the medieval loop were ridiculed as "fools" by those who adopted the new calendar. Hipsters sent rubes on "fool's errands" to fetch non-existent items such as gnat's blood, fish molars or the cannon report.

The tradition hopped the channel to England, where the fool is called a "gob," "gobby" or "noodle." This makes sense, more or less, except that sticklers will note that England didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752, and April Fool's Day was long established in Old Blighty by then.

In Scotland, pranks focused on the fool's tuchus and the ensuing celebration is called Taily Day. The butt, so to speak, of such jokes is called an "April Gowk" – a cuckoo bird. All this has led some historians to conclude that the "kick me" sign originated as part of Scotland's annual celebration of fools.

Other scholars contend that April Fool's Day can be traced to the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine. A group of court jesters --"consultants" in today's parlance -- told the emperor that they could do a better job of turning the wheels of empire. Constantine, who enjoyed a good yuk more than say, Caligula, allowed a jester to be emperor for a day. The professional jokester immediately decreed a day of absurdity, and it became an annual event.

But truth-seekers note it couldn't have happened this way because the emperor and his toga-clad minions had no time for goofiness. As a recent archeological dig has shown, they spent hours under the grandstands at the Coliseum attempting to devise a binary code based on Roman numerals that would baffle the barbarians.

Some social anthologists say the annual bout of foolishness simply reflects rising spirits as people shed winter gloom and brighten at the first signs of spring.

That's plausible because cultures around the world, including China and India, celebrate a day of pranks on April 1st.

Never give a sucker an even break, W.C. Fields advised. That's fair enough because some folks fell for these recent April Fool's tall tales:

- An alternative newspaper in Phoenix published a story on the formation of a new charity to arm the homeless and provide them with plenty of ammo.

- Guinness announced that it had struck a deal with the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England to be the official beer of the Millennium celebration. Under the deal, Greenwich Mean Time would become Guinness Mean Time and seconds would be counted in "pint drips" rather than "pips."

- A story in a leading computer magazine said Senate Bill 040194 (i.e. April 1st, 1994) would make it illegal to surf the Internet when drunk and would ban online discussion of sex.

A Connecticut newspaper said it had been purchased by Tass, then the official news agency of the Soviet Union. Some readers said it figured, given the newspaper's pink-o editorials.

Good yarns. However, mapping the human genome suggests there may be a genetic basis for April Fool's Day that transcends culture. In any case, gentle reader, there are only 21 chapters in the Gospel According to John.
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