April Fool's Day is this coming Sunday, and I don't want you to miss it. Since my weekend promises to be full of editing and writing, blogging time will be at a premium, so here's your annual warning about the tricks the world may be planning for you. You may avoid the usual office pranks, but while Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, remember that family members will be home, with all too much time on their hands. On April 1st, you can't trust anyone. In fact, you can't trust the month of April itself.
Easter often falls in April, although the calculation of the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon (which may not really be full at all) after the vernal equinox (which is set at March 21, whether it is or not) is a question best left to astronomers. And I hope you're not expecting an explanation of what colored eggs and Easter bunnies have to do with the church holiday. Suffice it to say that rabbits, tulips, and eggs are all signs of the new beginnings of Spring and pre-date the celebration of Easter.
Since Easter does not have to occur in April at all, the one thing we can count on is that some of us will start April by making fools of ourselves. Did you ever wonder where April Fool's Day originated? Fools are always with us, of course, but why is there a special day to call attention to them? One explanation is tied to that confusing date of Easter. In the calendar devised by Julius Caesar's astronomers, there were a few too many days. They had posited a year of 365 days and even added a leap year every four years. But the solar year is a actually 365.242199 days long, which means that the calendar got ahead of itself by one day every 128 years. By 1582, there were serious concerns that Easter was not being celebrated on the right day because the calendar was out of whack.
Pope Gregory XIII declared that something had to be done to restore God's timetable. His official astronomers went to work and created the Gregorian calendar, which most Christian countries still follow. To make up for the ten days that had been added over the centuries, they cancelled the days between October 5 and October 14. They also declared that any full century year would not be a leap year unless it was divisible by 40 (so 2000, but not 1900). And while they were at it, they moved the beginning of the year from April 1 to January 1. Then all they had to do was convince the rest of Europe to adopt the new calendar.
That was not as easy as it sounded, especially since a large part of Europe was occupied by Frenchmen, who did not like being told what to do by an Italian pope. On April 1, there were New Year's celebrations all over France, while the rest of the continent made fun of those "poor French fish" who didn't know what day it was. The first April Fools Day prank seems to have been pinning a picture of a fish on a Frenchman's back to show his foolishness.
Since then, the jokes have gotten more elaborate, if not more sophisticated. Historians of such things are pretty much agreed upon the best joke of all time. In 1957, BBC news ran a picture of a tree festooned with long strands of spaghetti. The accompanying report announced that ideal pasta-growing conditions in Switzerland were producing a bumper crop. Thousands of views wrote or called to ask where they could by their own spaghetti trees. Inquirers were instructed to plant a strand of pasta in a can of tomato sauce and hope for the best.
My personal favorites include the pranks played by fast food companies. Taco Bell announced in 1996 that it had purchased the Liberty Bell, which would from then on be known as the Taco Liberty Bell. Patriotic citizens were outraged and besieged Washington D.C. with their demands to cancel the sale. Two years later, Burger King proudly heralded the creation of a left-handed Whopper. It would contain exactly the same ingredients, but everything would be rotated 180 degrees for the convenience of their left-hand customers. Customers dutifully ordered one or the other. No foolin'!