Fools' paradise: How April 1st became the hoodwinking holiday

From picking pasta from Swiss shrubs to honouring Roman goddesses, April has long been marked with mischief

April Fools' Day, April 1st, Hoax, Pranks, Panorama

A still from the BBC's iconic hoax on 'Panorama' on April 1st, 1957, which conned British viewers in believing spaghetti grows on trees [YouTube]

They actually come earlier than April, these days. Pranks and paltry attempts to hoodwink and trick, and make thicks of all of us. Hardly surprising, really, given that a well-timed and clever April Fools can live on for years afterwards, perennial clickbait whipped out at the dawn of summer time. “The person who writes for fools is always sure of a large audience,” said Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, credited with inventing viral content. Well, that last part is a lie, but that’s the point of today, no?

Arguably the greatest April Fools of them all was the one pulled off by the BBC way back in 1957; in the clipped tones of David Dimbleby, Panorama, the current affairs TV show, took viewers to the canton of Ticino, in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. Unsuspecting viewers peered on in complete and utter credulity while a Swiss family picked ripe spaghetti from the spaghetti tree in their back garden.

At the time, not quite three years since the end of post-WWII rationing, spaghetti was such a novelty across the United Kingdom that the report struck a chord with viewers. Fewer than half of all British households had a television set, but estimates suggest as many as 8m viewers were watching Panorama that night – with many calling the BBC after the broadcast to ask for tips on how to cultivate their own pasta plants at home. “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best,” is reportedly how the BBC responded.

In the years since, many companies, be the commercial or media, have aped the BBC’s Panorama prank, some with huge success, most with immediate irrelevance. For every Burger King’s ‘left-handed whopper’ or the Guardian’s seven-page travel supplement on the exotic island resort of San Serriffe, there are thousands of others. Today, social media is littered with landmines hoping to catch you out, to the point that anything that could vaguely be misconstrued as a fiction when actually the real McCoy is usually teased with ‘Not a joke’ or ‘ – really’.

But what was the first April Fools’ joke and where does the tradition come from? Historians can’t seem to agree on a clear origin story for the annual anarchy. Some classicists say that all goads lead to Rome, with that ancient civilisation’s fondness for the aptly named festival of Hilaria. Believed to have been marked on March 25th, around the vernal equinox in honour of the fertility goddess Cybele, the Romans spent the day pulling each others’ legs – even those of magistrates – and wearing masks.

Hilaria is not the only celebration to happen at this point on the calendar, with the Hindu holiday Holi and the Jewish one of Purim marked with the mischief-making, in the form of pelting each other in colourful powders and dressing up for dinner respectively. In Iran, Sizdah-Bedar – literally translated as ‘getting rid of 13’ – see Persians mark the 13th day of the new year by spending it outside in the sun. The general merriment of folk traditions at this time of the year throughout history might be the source of the modern obsession with pulling the wool over each others’ eyes.

The Guardian's 1977 travel supplement and typography pun-filled story on San Serriffe, a nation comprising two Indian Ocean islands in the shape of a semi-colon [The Guardian]

Other historians point out the Catholic Church, rarely an organisation credited with its capacity to land a joke, as the source of today’s hijinks. In medieval France and England, January 1st was known as the ‘Feast of Fools’, a feast day spanning centuries that saw carnival masquerades and the mocking of social order, usually by means of bringing donkeys to mass.

It was all a canny Catholic PR move, designed to “release pent-up anti-clerical sentiment among the people,” says folklorist Jack Santino in All Around the Year, an exploration of the history of holidays. But like RAG week in Galway, there can be a little bit too much of a good thing, and by the 16th century, the Feast of Fools had gotten out of hand. At least according to church officials, who banned it – though Catholics continued to celebrate it, albeit with fewer donkeys, for a couple more hundred years.

As for why the day of fools moved to April from January, well that’s believed to be an unfortunate coincidence tied to Pope Gregory XIII, best remembered for introducing the faithful to his standardised Gregorian calendar in 1563. The unilateral move across all of Christendom meant that the new year, which had been marked as the end of March, switched over to midnight on January 1st. Those who continued to celebrate the old new year’s date, most likely because of the time it took for the Gregorian calendar to cross over Europe, were the subject of ridicule, called ‘April Fools’.

The Gregorian theory, though widely accepted, does fall down, thanks to a Flemish poem written three years before the Pope issued the new calendar. Called Refrain on fool’s errand-day / which is the first of April, the poem recounts the mean-spirited fun had by a nobleman at the expense of his manservant by sending him on a series of absurd messages on April 1st.

Regardless, Over time, different countries begat different ways of poking fun at their shower of April nitwits; in France and other francophone nations, it’s tradition to try and sneak up and pin a paper fish onto someone’s clothing, shouting Poisson d’avril if you achieve it. The same is true in Italy, whereas the Nordic countries usually run front page news stories. A well remembered and often aped Danish one from 1965 reported that the Borgen had decreed all black dogs be painted with a white stripe in order to improve road safety by rendering them more visible at night.

Burger King's full-page ad in the April 1st edition of USA Today in 1998, perhaps the last great April Fools' hoax before the Internet became so universal [USA Today]

In China, though, fabricating fibs on the first of April may – or may not, it’s still very unclear – have been officially banned, with the state’s media reporting that making a fool of the country’s citizens with decadent Western pranks goes “against socialist values.” That this message was signed off with a smiling emoji doesn’t appear to have dissuaded a number of newspapers of record from reporting it as fact.

As a country noted for its all-seeing surveillance, China can be remarkably slow on the uptake of international humour. When The Onion, a US satirical website, ran a post declaring North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as the sexiest man on the planet, the Communist Party newspaper ran a 55-page photo spread in honour of what the original article had called his “devastatingly handsome, round face, [...] and his strong, sturdy frame.”

Whether or not China has actually banned April Fools remains unclear, but it’s probably best not to try and sneak up on president Xi Jinping armed with a cut-out paper fish and a pin.

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