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Archive for Monday, April 1, 2002

April Fools!

April 1, 2002

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— The French started it. Great literary figures like Herman Melville embraced it.

And right now, your shoelace is untied.

Ha! April Fool!

Yep, it's today: April 1, known as April Fools' Day. The day you check the sugar bowl before you mistakenly sprinkle salt on your cereal.

The day you check in the mirror for a "Kick Me" sign if someone gives you a pat on the back.

The day any story that seems too fantastic to be true probably isn't true.

The day when lame jokes, elaborate pranks and oddball events are not only expected but welcomed with childish glee. Even when the joke's on us.

"There is a human fascination with being tricked," said Florida State University English professor Bruce Bickley. "As long as we don't get hurt too badly, and as long as it's well done, we admire being tricked."

Some speculate that today's observance may yield a bountiful harvest of tricking, pranking and joking, as it is the first April Fools' Day since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

More so than other recent national tragedies, the terrorist attack cast a somber pall over Americans. There has been an unofficial moratorium on gallows humor regarding the attack and a muting of many forms of frivolity.

But with the official sanction of April Fools' Day, the restraints may loosen. Which wouldn't be a bad thing.

"People need some sort of release from shock and sadness," said Jerrilyn McGregory, a professor of folklore at FSU. "When the (space shuttle) Challenger crashed, jokes began circulating almost immediately. But we haven't had anything like that with 9-11, except for a few Osama bin Laden jokes.

"Perhaps it's been too soon to interact on that level. But there may be a letting down of the hair (today)."

Calendar switch

April Fools' Day is not so much a holiday as it is a custom  and no one is entirely sure how it got started.

The generally accepted explanation is it started in France in 1582, the year the Gregorian calendar was instituted to correspond more closely to the solar year and moved New Year's Day from April 1 to Jan. 1.

Because communications were slow in the 1500s, it was years before many people found out or believed that the New Year had changed dates, and those people continued to hold traditional New Year's celebrations on April 1. That led others to ridicule them as "fools," send them on a "Fools' errand" and try to make them believe something false was true.

Eventually, the ridicule evolved into a tradition of prank-playing on April 1, and by the 18th century the custom had spread to England, Scotland and the American colonies.

Scotland turned the observance into a two-day event, with the second day devoted to pranks involving the human posterior  which many credit for the "Kick Me" sign prank.

In France, the day is known as Poisson d'Avril ("April Fish," which is the term yelled when a person is tricked), and a common prank is to tape a paper fish to a child's back.

American adaptations

In the United States, there are common April Fools' Day gags: Substituting salt for sugar, setting a friend's clock back so the friend is late and presenting tall tales as the truth  then yelling "April Fools'" when the person realizes he or she has been tricked.

Other common tricks include pointing down to a friend's shoe and saying, "Your shoelace is untied." Teachers in the 19th century used to say to pupils, "Look! A flock of geese!" and point up. Schoolchildren might tell a classmate that school has been canceled.

Bickley sees April Fools' Day as part of the great literary tradition involving "trickster" characters, whose ability to dupe others is celebrated.

He said that the trickster tradition in literature can be found in Biblical stories, Buddhist teachings, Homeric verse and African, European and Asian literature.

Bickley said notable American examples were fashioned by Mark Twain (the Duke and the King in "Huck Finn"), Joel Chandler Harris (Br'er Rabbit), cartoons ("Bugs Bunny is Br'er Rabbit reincarnated")  and Herman Melville. Though the 19th century author is known best for serious works such as "Moby Dick," Melville also wrote "The Confidence Man," a novel about a con man on a Mississippi River boat. The novel is set on a single day  April 1  and was released by the publisher on April 1, 1857.

And don't forget this famous witticism from Twain: "The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year."

The popularity of April Fools' Day is part timing, said McGregory, as it comes at the end of winter and "allows people to get in a more jovial mood." But it persists as a custom, she said, because people need an official day to be silly.

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