Clare Wadsworth explores the history behind April Fools’ Day and some pranks that have accompanied it throughout the ages, as well as her own experience.
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
– T.S. Eliot The Waste Land
Until Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582, New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25th. The reform was instigated so that all Catholics could celebrate Easter at the same time, and also in the same season as the early Church. However some Protestants and Eastern Orthodox religions did not immediately adopt this new calendar. In 1923 Greece was the last country to accept the Gregorian calendar.
Before this time January 1st had been the Feast of Fools, Saturnalia, when Catholic rituals were mocked, a pope elected and high and low officials exchanged jobs for a day. People continuing to celebrate the New Year in April were called fools. In Italy, France, Belgium and Holland a paper fish, a ‘poisson d’avril’, was pinned to friends’ backs. In Scotland it was traditionally celebrated over two days, April 1st was known as Gowkie or Cuckoo’s Day and on April 2nd a sign reading ‘kick me’ was pinned to people’s backs.
Newspapers often printed fabricated stories, which were sometimes bylined Lirpa Loof. People made fun of the fools and sent them on ‘a fool’s errand’ – according to the Oxford Dictionary, this is ‘a task or activity that has no hope of success’.
Some April Fool Pranks
One of the best Australian hoaxes was instigated by Dick Smith, who had often talked of towing an iceberg to Australia from Antarctica and selling ice cubes from it at 10 cents each. In 1978, he covered a barge in shaving cream and fire-fighting foam, hid a fridge on board and hauled it from Balmain Wharf into Sydney Harbour while his employees called local radio stations and newspapers to report it! They gave away ice cubes, which they called dicksicles, to everyone who approached, but unfortunately it began to pour with rain and the prank revealed.
In 1957 the BBC current events program Panorama broadcast a three-minute report on the record crop of Swiss spaghetti farms in the Po Valley due to the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil. The BBC was bombarded with calls from viewers wanting to buy plants, but could only suggest planting a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce.
The Guardian newspaper, in 1977, published a special report on the ultimate Indian Ocean holiday destination, the Republic of San Serriffe, ruled by General Pica, where the islands were called Upper and Lower Caisse, the main beach was Gill Sands and the capital was Bodoni.
Colour television didn’t reach Sweden until 1970, but in 1962 the only television station announced that covering the screen with a stocking would cause the light to bend through the mesh so that the picture looked as though it was in colour. Many pairs of tights were cut up and thousands of viewers admitted to having fallen for the hoax.
In 1998 the Financial Times took a Guinness hoax seriously and announced that as Guinness would be the official sponsor of the Royal Observatory’s millennium celebrations, Greenwich Mean Time would be renamed Guinness Mean Time and the ‘pips’ would be called ‘pint drips’. A retraction was published.
Of course, sometimes pranks backfire – in 1949 an Auckland radio station, Radio 1ZB, warned listeners that a mile-wide swarm of wasps was coming and urged them to protect themselves. The ensuing panic did not amuse the then New Zealand Broadcasting Service.
From my own experience in Hong Kong, I didn’t speak to a Swedish friend for six months, after she telephoned to say that my very beautiful, mild-tempered white standard poodle, imported from Greg and Kerry Maraun in Sydney, had bitten someone and was to be put down by the police.
And as yet I’ve no confirmation of the story that the Irish Guards in Hong Kong in the late sixties ‘borrowed’ the Welsh Guards’ goat mascot and returned it painted green.
However, genuine funny hoaxes are increasingly difficult to accomplish in this era of fake news where life seems increasingly to be satirising itself.
Perhaps a prank on April 1st is a joy to mankind, helping the digestion and giving us all something new to laugh and talk about.
Laugh thy girlish laughter;
Then, the moment after,
Weep thy girlish tears!”