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Illustration from Hulton Archive, Getty Images
March 28, 2008
For the eager prankster, nothing beats the centuries-old tradition of April Fools' Day.
"A lot of people think [April Fools' Day] is just obnoxious, and just wish it would stop," said Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego, California. (Read an April Fools' Day Q&A with the Museum of Hoaxes curator.)
"But people who love pranks really love the day and refuse to give up the tradition. They're the ones who keep it alive."
Boese notes, however, that the number of pranks in the home and at the office has decreased in recent years in the United States, and has been replaced by large institutionalized media hoaxes, he said.
(Related: "April Fools' Day Special: History's Hoaxes" [April 1, 2003].)
April Fools' Day Origins a Mystery
The origins of April Fools' Day are shrouded in mystery, experts say.
The most popular theory is that France changed its calendar in the 1500s so that the New Year would begin in January to match the Roman calendar instead of beginning at the start of spring, in late March or early April.
However word of the change traveled slowly, and many people in rural areas continued to celebrate the New Year in the spring. These country dwellers became known as "April fools," the story goes.
Boese, who has studied the holiday's origin, disagrees with that interpretation.
"[The French] theory is completely wrong, because the day that the French celebrated the beginning of the year legally was Easter day, so it never really was associated with April first," he said.
"Traditionally it was only a legal start to the year—people in France did actually celebrate [the New Year] on January first for as long as anybody could remember."
Boese believes instead that April Fools' Day simply grew out of age-old European spring festivals of renewal, in which pranks and camouflaging one's identity are common.
April Fools' Day: The Joke's On Us
Joseph Boskin, professor emeritus of American humor at Boston University, has offered his own interpretation of the holiday's roots—as a prank.
In 1983, Boskin told an Associated Press reporter that the idea came from Roman jesters during the time of Constantine I in the third and fourth centuries A.D.
As the story goes, jesters successfully petitioned the ruler to allow one of their elected members to be king for a day.
So, on April first, Constantine handed over the reins of the Roman Empire for one day to King Kugel, his jester. Kugel decreed that the day forever would be a day of absurdity.
Kugel, incidentally, is an Eastern European dish that one of Boskin's friends had been craving.
The news agency was less than thrilled about the gambit, Boskin said. "I thought I should have been complimented for a quacky, quirky story that was fitted to the occasion."
Humor and pranksters can offer society some much-needed perspective, he added.
"Good humorists are basically secular shamans—they both heckle society on one hand and heal it on the other."
Boese of the Museum of Hoaxes also points out the day is an outlet for social inequalities to be openly confronted. For example, street urchins used to play April Fools' Day tricks on London gentlemen in the 1800s.
Stranger Than Fiction
However, fictional humor is slowly giving way to factual absurdities in popular culture, experts say.
One needs to look no further than the Ig Nobel prizes awarded every year for scientific research.
The 2007 Ig Nobel prize for medicine went to researchers who published an article on sword swallowing and its side effects—in the eminent British Medical Journal, no less.
(Related news: "Poop Vanilla, Endless Soup Among 2007 Ig Nobels" [October 5, 2007].)
"We keep inventing fewer things simply because we keep finding it is impossible to compete with reality," said Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research.
In March 2008 the journal described Philip M. Parker, who has invented a book-writing machine that scours a database of information to churn out a book in 20 minutes. The device has helped him author more than 300,000 titles—85,000 of which are for sale on Amazon.com, including the 2007-2012 Outlook for Lemon-Flavored Water in Japan and Webster's English to Zarma Crossword Puzzles: Level 1.
"The real stuff is funnier simply because it is real," Abrahams said.
"In that sense, the things that are real and funny are a superior form of [an] April Fools' joke, because you can tell them and people will think you are making it up."
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