Saturday, March 31, 2012

Be On Your Guard, It's April Fools' Day!

It's April Fools' Day once again. This year, April 1, the designated date for April Fools' or All Fools Day, falls on a Sunday. Coincidentally, it also falls on Palm Sunday, the traditional start of the Roman Catholic observance of Holy Week. But there is nothing holy about April Fools' Day.

Every April 1st, it is important to be on one's guard because certified jokesters, pranksters, hoaxers and punksters are surely cooking up devilish practical jokes that can cause some level of embarrassment to the victims of their childish gags. If you have family or friends who love to dish out practical jokes, make sure you are ready to take it or come up with your own before the day ends! 

History of April Fools' Day

The origin of April Fools' Day is not set in stone. No one can seem to give a definite account as to why exactly April 1 was designated as Fools' Day. Several sources say April 1 was chosen because of the shift of New Year's Day. Thousands of years ago, New Year was not on January 1. There was a time when the first day of the year was celebrated sometime between the last week of March and first week of April. The Romans and the Hindus for instance started the year close to or on April 1 following the date of the vernal equinox. During the medieval times, New Year was set on the Feast of the Annunciation, which was on March 25. When the calendar was changed from Julian to Gregorian, by order of Pope Gregory XII in 1582, the first day of the year was moved to January 1.
The French was one of the first who adopted this change. But within France itself, not everyone knew about the change. There were also citizens who opposed the change outright. These were the people who continued to celebrate New Year's Day every April 1st. As a result, some of those who embraced the change played tricks on those who did not. The latter were often sent on "fool's errands" as a form of harassment. This harassment eventually evolved into prank playing, a practice that spread to England, Scotland and other parts of Europe. Eventually, the tradition of playing pranks on April Fools' Day landed on the shores of the New World and continues to this day.
Several sources mention other suspected origins of April Fools' Day. British writer Geoffrey Chaucer for instance is credited by some sources as the first person that made reference to trickery played on April 1. The ancient festival of Hilaria, a Roman tradition celebrated on March 25, is mentioned as a possible precursor to April Fools' Day. Pagan and Christian traditions, too are being connected to this day of fun and trickery. It is hard to say which of these supposed origins is the right one. The only thing certain today is that the practice of playing practical jokes during April 1 is widely accepted in many countries across the globe.
Days of trickery around the world

For those countries that observe April Fools' Day on April 1st, some only "allow" practical jokes to be played until noon while others let the pranks go on the whole day. In the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, anyone who dares to play a joke after the clock strikes at 12 noon is labeled the "April Fool." Traditionally, French and Italian youngsters arm themselves with paper fishes and tack these on other people's backs, hoping not to be noticed. They would then yell out "april fish!" in French ("poisson d'avril!") or Italian "pesce d'aprile!"

In other countries, practical jokes are played not on April 1st but on other days. Spain for instance celebrates "día de los Santos Inocentes" or the Day of the Holy Innocents on December 28. This day was believed to be the day when King Herod had the first male sons slaughtered during the time Jesus Christ was born. Thus, the day is also referred to as "Massacre of the Innocents." "Day of the Holy Innocents" is also observed in traditionally Catholic countries that were once ruled by Spain like Mexico and the Philippines. In Belgium, December 28 is Childermas or Holy Innocents' Day. The typical prank executed by children during this day is to lock their elders in a room. The children will only let out their elders if their elders pay a ransom in the form of treats, money, toys and other things.

The Persians, now todays Iranians, celebrate their New Year around the time of the vernal equinox, which usually falls on March 21. Norouz or Persian New Year is typically the start of spring. Sizdah Bedar, the 13 day after New Year, traditionally falls on April 1, thus coinciding with April Fools' Day in other countries. There are many traditions on this day. One is called "Dorugh-e Sizdah" that means "the lie of the 13th." This is likened to the April Fools' Day tradition of tricking other people. On Sizdah Bedar, Iranians lie to others or play pranks on each other. Some believe that this prank-tradition is the oldest in the world since, according to one source; it dates back to 536 BC.

Prima aprilis (April 1 in Latin) serves as the day when the people of Poland would play pranks, practical jokes and hoaxes, a custom inherited from the Germans. It is expected that April 1 in Poland would be the time when naive people would find themselves believing fanciful stories and preyed upon by jokesters.

Hunt-the Gowk Day is April Fools' Day in the Scottish Isles. A "gowk" means cuckoo or foolish person. A person is usually sent on a fool's errand during this day. The "gowk" is basically given the run-around delivering a sealed message from person to person. The Danes and Swedes get to play jokes on others on April 1 and May 1.

In Korea, during the Joseon dynasty (1392 - 1897), the 1st snowy day of every year gave the members of the royal family and their courtiers leave to lie or fool one another. Bowls with snow were usually sent out to unsuspecting people. Anyone who received a gag bowl filled with snow needed to grant the wish of the sender. This was viewed as a harmless prank back then and it still continues today in modern day Korea.

Why is it called a practical joke?

Trick, prank, gag, shenanigan and jape all refer to one thing: a practical joke. It is a trick played with mischievous intention on another person for a variety of reasons. Some are just for fun while others are played to embarrass a person, put him in an uncomfortable situation or make him look or feel foolish. Depending on the practical joke, some jokes are lighthearted and harmless while others are downright cruel.

Why is it called practical? Because practical jokes are often physical in nature. These type of jokes are concrete rather than verbal or written in nature. An example of a practical joke is putting a whoopee cushion on the seat of the intended victim. This is usually done in a place where other people would be in hearing distance of the fart sound the whoopee cushion would make once sat on. Different types of novelty items are available and used widely by pranksters in their quest to get one over their intended victims. Fake vomit, fake poop, fake severed body parts, exploding cigarettes or cigars, hand buzzers, cockroach gums, itch powder and stink bombs are just a few gag items commonly used not only during April Fool's Day but anytime anyone wants to play a practical joke on an unsuspecting person.

Harmless hoaxes in the past

Days before April Fools' Day, people expect hoaxes to be played not just by ordinary people but also by companies, organizations and media outlets all in the spirit of fun. On the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news program Panorama back in 1957, they ran a hoax involving Swiss peasants and, of all things, spaghetti. In the video, they showed gleeful peasants in Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from trees. The spaghetti harvest hoax was believed by many viewers, some of whom called the BBC to find out how they, too, can grow spaghetti! This hoax is the number 1 hoax in the Museum of Hoaxes list of  "Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of All Time."

Fast food giants Taco Bell and Burger King played pranks, too on their customers. In 1996, a full-page advertisement ran in the New York Times stating that Taco Bell acquired the historic Liberty Bell. As a result, the company was going to rename it "Taco Liberty Bell." Of course many Americans were up in arms. By 12 noon of April 1 that year, it was announced by Taco Bell that the whole thing was a hoax. The hoax was such a successful marketing ploy that it generated so much free publicity for the fast food giant. The Museum of Hoaxes lists the Taco Bell hoax as number 4 in its "Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of All Time."

In 1998, Burger King announced that on April 1 a new burger called the "Left-Handed Whopper" was to rollout of its restaurants. What's so special about this particular Whopper? The burger chain said that this burger was engineered in a way that the condiments would slide out from the right side instead of the left side of the burger. Many went to order the "Left-Handed Whopper." Of course there was no such Whopper.

British mogul Sir Richard Branson pulled his own prank a day before April Fools' Day in 1989. Outside of London, motorists saw what appeared to be a flying saucer making its descent on the city. Unfortunately, instead of the UFO landing in Hyde Park as originally planned by Bronson, the craft landed in a small field outside of London. The police who responded to calls made by locals found not ET but the chairman of Virgin Records stepping out of his saucer looking hot air balloon.

Popular pranksters who do not wait for April Fools' Day

Aside from Branson, there are a number of celebrities known for playing pranks on their co-workers, friends and anyone else they could fool. These are people who do not wait for April Fools' Day to victimize some hapless, unsuspecting individuals. Actors Mel Gibson and George Clooney are well-known pranksters. Brad Pitt, one of Clooney's closest pals, is often the target of his pranks. But Pitt himself can dish out creative pranks of his own. Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen have had their share of foolery and pranks throughout their lives.

Kudos should go to actor Ashton Kutcher for making money from pranking and punking famous celebrities. Kutcher was host of the MTV show "Punk'd" where celebrities find themselves at the receiving end of practical jokes. But before Kutcher, there was Allen Funt, the creator of Candid Camera. The show used hidden cameras to capture practical jokes played on ordinary citizens. Candid Camera had a successful run from 1948 to 2004.

On April Fools' Day, don't be played for a fool! If you plan to be the one dishing out the jokes, make sure they are fun and lighthearted, not mean and cruel. On the other hand, if you find yourself in the fool's shoes, be good-natured about it. You can always exact revenge on your jokester next year.


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