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The Feast of Fools

March 31, 2013

When I was growing up, April Fools’ Day was much anticipated. One memorable escapade involved placing a beautifully wrapped box, albeit empty, by the side of the road as if it had been carelessly lost. When a passerby stopped to rescue the package, kids in hiding jumped out to shout, “April Fools!”

In the Middle Ages, a celebration that occurred between the vernal equinox and the first of April was called the Feast of Fools.  Pious priests and simple townsfolk wore masks, sang silly songs, and performed outrageous skits.  Members of the clergy, with faces painted like clowns, mocked their superiors by wearing the robes of a bishop or a cardinal.  People in the community often elected a young boy as a lord of misrule to mock the king.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo writes an account of the Feast of Fools in which Quasimodo serves as King of Fools.

Sometimes the parody became profane. The ceremonies mocked the performance of the highest offices of the church, while other persons, dressed in different kinds of masks and disguises, engaged in songs and dances and practiced all manner of revelry within the church building.

An altar boy would be selected to play the role of the Pope.  Even worship would be an occasion for joking and making fun of clergy who led Mass.  No custom and no convention was immune to ridicule.  Anybody in authority would be lampooned.  The celebration ended on the first day of April, which was New Year’s Day at that time.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar.

Charles IX of France adopted the Gregorian calendar immediately, moving New Year’s Day to January first.  Some people did not readily accept the change.  They insisted on celebrating the Feast of Fools and the beginning of the New Year on the first day of April. The general populace labeled these obstinate folk as fools and made them the subjects of ridicule. Known as April’s fools, they were often sent on fools’ errands or made the butt of practical jokes.

Eventually, no one was exempt from the teasing. The tradition of playing pranks on the first day of April spread throughout Western Europe in the eighteenth century. Both the English and the French introduced April Fools’ Day to the American colonies.

Pranks range from simple teasing to more involved schemes. Setting a roommate’s alarm clock back an hour was a common gag in my college days. Elaborate practical jokes played on friends or relatives may last the entire day. I will always remember the student who siphoned three tanks of gasoline out of an absent-minded professor’s Volkswagen on April Fools’ Day.

Whatever the prank, the trickster ends the foolishness by declaring to the victim, “April’s Fool!”

Occasionally, the news media gets into the spirit of the day. The Internet Web site lists 100 of the best practical jokes.

In 1957, the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that, thanks to a very mild winter and the elimination of the spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. Film of Swiss peasants, pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees, accompanied the report. Many viewers called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.

The April 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated published a story by George Plimpton. He reported that the New York Mets had signed Sidd Finch, a new rookie pitcher who could reportedly throw a baseball 168 miles per hour with pinpoint accuracy. According to the story, Sidd Finch had never even played in a baseball game. Instead, he had mastered the art of pitching in a Tibetan monastery.

Gullible Mets fans celebrated their amazing luck!

In 1962 only one television channel existed in Sweden, broadcasting in black and white. On April 1st the station’s technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to color by simply pulling a nylon stocking over their TV screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people tried the technique. Some even claimed that it worked.

To commemorate the hoax, when color TV broadcasts were initiated in Sweden in 1970,  the network chose April first as the day to begin.

In 1996 the Taco Bell Corporation announced that it had purchased the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. The National Historic Park in Philadelphia reported that hundreds of outraged citizens called to express their anger.

Later in the day, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry was asked about the sale of the Liberty Bell. He responded that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold. It would now be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

In our family, Clare usually has the first joke of the day, almost always involving food. It is a tradition that goes back to her grandmother. Among Clare’s classics were freshly baked apple cinnamon muffins each concealing a cotton ball. Tasty!

Ordinarily, we think of April Fools’ Day as an opportunity for tomfoolery.

I was ordained to the ministry on April Fools’ Day 1970.  Some have thought that nothing could have been more appropriate.  I must admit that at the time I did not consider the long-term implications.  In subsequent years, I have found this to be reason for great hilarity.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “We are fools for Christ.” (I Corinthians 4:10)

I suppose so.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2013

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