Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 1, 2022

"Poisson d’avril"

The origin of April Fools' Day is unknown, but whenever it began, there have been centuries of pranks, practical jokes and hoaxes since.

The informal holiday always occurs on or near April 1 and sending "rubes" on a "fool's errand" was already rampant in Europe by the late 1600s. On April 1, 1698, so many people went to the Tower of London to watch the "washing of the lions" that the April 2 edition of a local newspaper had to debunk the hoax - and publicly mock those who fell for it.

According to the March 2022 Reader's Digest, the predecessor to all this April tomfoolery is probably the Roman tradition of Hilaria, a start-of-spring festival held around March 25 in honor of the vernal equinox. Festivities included games, processions, and masquerades, during which disguised commoners could imitate nobility.

In more recent times, I am intimately familiar with a certain older sister I know who surreptitiously put salt into the sugar bowl the evening of March 31. Her younger sister was none too pleased with the first mouthful of cereal the next morning. The elder calling out "April Fools!" didn't really help either.

Although I don't remember participating in many such pranks, college roommate Deb recalled one from the 1970s. To commemorate the engagement of a dormmate, a candle-lighting ceremony was held with everyone "ooh-ing" and "ah-ing" over the ring. Snacks were also served. I wasn't dating anyone and told Deb it was unlikely I'd ever be so honored. That prompted our pulling an April-fool gag on the others in the dorm. We arranged a "fake" candle-lighting for me, complete with my teddy-bear fiancé and animal crackers.

Husband Art's mom was born on March 31. His cousin Jeff recently recalled that Art's dad kidded her that he thought she was fibbing and the real day was one later.

But we Americans certainly do not have a corner on April 1 gags and pranks. Friend Steve in the UK said he and his wife sometimes told their children they overslept for school and they needed to hurry to get ready. It would be a few minutes before the kids realized it was a weekend.

German "son" Tim said it's common on April 1 for an employee to tell the boss he or she cannot come to work for one reason or another - an accident or a favorite pet died. Then, after hearing the appropriate words of sympathy, the employee appears at the boss' office and says, "April, April" - the term used in Germany.

Although not noted for their humor, Germans have a rich history of April Fools' pranks. In 1901, a gardening magazine touted sunflowers as being able to glow in the dark, with their light so strong that a person could read by the them. This produced a "run" on sunflower seeds.

The Berlin Wall was built quickly in 1961, leaving some homes on Bernauer Strasse against it. People wishing to flee the East would signal by flashing lights from such a home's upper window. One evening, Western police saw such a light and called the firefighters to bring their nets to "catch" the refugees as they jumped. Instead, they were met by East German border guards who leaned out and called "April, April!"

When Canada was converting to the metric system, a radio station prompted listeners to get to the store and pick up a metric clock before they were gone. Some people were probably fooled because the actual changeover date was April 1, 1975.

People in France celebrate by sticking a paper fish onto the backs of as many people as possible, while yelling "Poisson d'avril!" - which means "fish of April."

Why the fish? I asked friend Virginie and she sent me an article from the newspaper Le Figaro. The fish has long been a symbol of life and fertility and, for the first Christians, a sacred symbol associated with Christ. But in the 18th century, "to give someone a fish" meant to make someone believe false news or to make him take some useless step in order to make fun of him. Another hypothesis is that April is the opening of fishing season.

Friend Bryce, who is a medical doctor, has my favorite April Fools' story.

My neighbor and friend ... decided to have a vasectomy. ... It was scheduled for about 8 a.m. on April 1, and a surgeon friend ... was coming ... for this and other surgeries that day.

Our operating room and delivery room shared an entrance near the back door of the hospital. ... It was large, and occasionally we had to wheel a cart with a deceased person there to await the arrival of the undertaker.

In the delivery room (also used for minor procedures) there was a ceiling-mounted wide-angle mirror that allowed a conscious patient or father at his laboring partner’s head to watch the proceedings.

That day, I pushed an empty cart into that anteroom, hopped on ... pulled a sheet over my head and lay there. As Mike was wheeled by ... he saw the covered "cadaver" and was mildly concerned, but was reassured that the undertaker wouldn't arrive during his short procedure.

The surgeon knew the plan. I wasn't stupid enough to scare him as he held a scalpel. Mike looked in the mirror at the foot of the operating table and could watch the "corpse," and tried to make light-hearted comments to ease his anxiety about the vasectomy and about the "corpse" who was present.

At a safe time during the procedure, I moaned and wiggled and finally sat up, with Mike watching all of this through the mirror. I suppose I said, "April Fool," but the laughter would have drowned that out ... He took the prank well and in his very public job in our community he told the story many times.

Now THAT sure beats salt in a sugar bowl or a "poisson d'avril" on someone’s back!

Left: "April April" graphic that appeared in a German gardening magazine in 1901 suggesting sunflowers could generate enough light to read by at night; center: an April 2, 1962 United Press International news item regarding the Berlin Wall joke; right: a young French lad who had been "fished." (Photo on right by Benoît Prieur from Wikipedia.)

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