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March 31, 2019

On the first day of April last year, descriptions of a new batch of practical jokes made the rounds on Facebook. They ranged from pictures of funny faces drawn with indelible markers on every item in the refrigerator to a report of a mustard-filled chocolate bunny. Yuck!

At Cambridge University a sign was posted on a door informing those trying to enter that their identification cards would no longer work in the card-swipe device. The note said that instead the system had been changed to a voice-activated system. Those wishing to enter need only speak their name into the card-swipe device. Throughout the day students and faculty shouted desperately trying to make the door open. It was all to no avail. Finally, the frustrated people were greeted with shouts of “April Fool!”

When I was growing up, April Fools’ 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, Mother Dee. 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 wore masks, sang silly songs, and performed outrageous skits.  Members of the clergy painted their faces like clowns.  Mocking their superiors, they dressed 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 was selected to play the role of the Pope.  Even worship was an occasion for joking, poking fun at people who led the Mass.  No custom and no convention were immune to ridicule.  Anybody in authority might 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 Daylight Saving Time was first introduced. They just flat-out refused to participate.

In 1582 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. 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 Fools’ Day to the American colonies.

April Fools’ 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 several tanks of gasoline out of an absentminded professor’s Volkswagen on April Fools’ 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 one hundred of the best pranks.

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. A 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 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 of celebrating this significant event in my life on a day for pranks.  In subsequent years, I have found this convergence of dates to be the reason for great hilarity among my colleagues and congregants.

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

I reckon so.

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