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April Fool

March 30, 2014

I was ordained to the ministry on April Fool’s Day. I must admit that at the time I did not consider the long-term implications of the timing of this significant event in my life. In subsequent years, I have found this convergence of dates to be reason for great hilarity among my colleagues and congregants.

When I was growing up, April Fool’s Day was much-anticipated. One memorable escapade was 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 Fool!”

In our family Clare usually pulls the first joke of the day, almost always involving food, a tradition that goes back to her grandmother. Among Clare’s classic heirloom pranks are freshly baked apple cinnamon muffins, each containing several cotton balls. Tasty!

During the Middle Ages, a celebration called the Feast of Fools occurred between the Vernal Equinox and April 1. Pious priests and simple townsfolk would wear masks, sing silly songs, and perform outrageous skits. Members of the clergy painted their faces like clowns. Mocking their superiors, they would dress in the robes of a bishop or a cardinal. People in the community elected a lord of misrule to mock the king. Often the person elected was a young boy.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo writes an account of the Feast of Fools in which Quasimodo serves as the 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, poking fun at people who led the Mass. No custom and no convention were immune to ridicule. Anybody in authority would be lampooned. The celebration ended on April 1, 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. New Year’s Day was moved to January 1. Word of the change traveled slowly. Some folks were only informed of the modification several years later. Others were set in their ways and refused to acknowledge the change. Their obstinacy reminds me a little of the way some folks in Kentucky reacted when Day Light Savings time was first introduced. They just flat-out refused to participate.

Some insisted on celebrating the Feast of Fools and the beginning of the New Year on the first day of April. In France, those who continued to do so were labeled fools by the general public and were subject to ridicule and practical jokes. Some were sent on fools’ errands or sent invitations to nonexistent parties. The targets of these pranks became known as a poisson d’avril or April fish because a young fish is easily caught. One common practice was to pin a paper fish on the back of the gullible person as a joke.

The custom of prank-playing on the first day of April continued, eventually crossing the English Channel to Britain and Scotland. Eventually, no one was exempt from the teasing. The tradition also spread throughout Western Europe in the eighteenth century. The English and the French introduced April Fool’s Day to the American colonies.

April Fool’s Day has taken on an international flavor with each country celebrating the holiday in its own way.

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 Fool’s Day.

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

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

In 1957, the BBC 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. Finch could reportedly throw a baseball 168 miles per hour with pinpoint accuracy. Surprisingly, 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 1 the station’s technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to color merely by pulling a nylon stocking over their TV screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people tried the technique. Some claimed that it worked.

To commemorate the hoax, color TV broadcasts began in Sweden on April 1, 1970.

In 1996 the Taco Bell Corporation announced that it had purchased the Liberty Bell and renamed 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 when asked about the sale of the Liberty Bell, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry responded that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold. It would now be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

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

I was ordained to the ministry on April Fool’s Day 1970. Some have thought that nothing could have been more appropriate.

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

I reckon so.


Kirk H. Neely
© March 2014




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