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April Fool’s Day: A Topsy Turvy Celebration

The Hunchback of Notre Dame Picture: Disney
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Picture: Disney

Well everyone, it’s that time of year again! The day when your friends, the media, and even the government try to trick you up just so they can yell “April Fools!” at you. These pranks usually either go really well, and are laughed at by all, or go horribly wrong, possibly causing major drama between friends. I’ll admit that I have been apart of both kinds of pranks (all taking place in the folly of my college days of course). I can’t say that I pay much attention to the holiday now, but it was brought to my notice today, and so I decided to assuage my curiosity and see what all the hullabaloo was about. Where did this crazy tradition come from and what is the appeal? Well, I did some research and found out just the answers to my queries.

This informal holiday has been making fools of people for arguably hundreds of years. Its’ origins date all the way back to the Roman festival of Hilaria held on March 25th. This was an ancient Roman religious festival celebrated on the vernal equinox to honor the mother of the gods, Cybele. With the death of the winter gloom, people chose to spend the first day of the new and better season rejoicing. The day was filled with games and different amusements, as well as masquerades. For this one day people could disguise themselves and imitate whomsoever they wished, even high officials. The rigid rules of class and society were put aside for this one day of revelry, turning the social order on its head.

This is similar to the other precursor to April Fool’s Day, the Medieval Feast of Fools, held on December 28th. You may remember this festival being featured in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Quasimodo taking part in the festivities and being named the King of Fools. Well, for all you Disney as well as Hugo fans, you have been well informed. Both portrayed the festival quite accurately.

Celebrated primarily by the clergy and the laity, the Feast of Fools revolves around the idea of a brief social revolution. During this festival the power, dignity, and impunity were briefly transferred to those in a subordinate position in society (hence Quasimodo, the lowest member of society, being made king for a day). The young lay people chose from among their number a mock high church official such as a pope, archbishop, or abbott, to reign over the festivities as the Lord of Misrule. Ridiculous ceremonies followed designed to “consecrate” the leader, bestowing upon him such titles as the Archbishop of Dolts, the Abbot of Unreason, etc.

The festival was, ironically, celebrated in the main church of the town or city, and the ceremonies, as you can probably tell, often mocked the highest offices of the church. Some of the parodies even bordered on the profane. But every ruler must have his court, and so did the Lord of Misrule. While he was playing King, the rest of the participants dressed up in different masks and disguises, not unlike in the practice in the Roman festival of Hilaria, and engaged in dancing, singing, and general wild revelry.  Sadly, all good things must come to and end, and the Feast of Fools was officially banned in 1431 by the Council of Basel. However, instances of festivals of that kind were reported to have survived in France as late as 1644.

But, though these festivals may have been officially banned, we see the influence of these topsy turvy celebrations in our own modern April Fools Day. For instance, the idea behind the phrase “April Fools” is that the act of fooling a person and then shouting “April Fools” at them makes them The April Fool, a reference back to the Lord of Misrule.  In England pranks are only played till midday, and those that try to play a joke on someone after midday is the “April Fool.” So, that being said, I hope you weren’t unlucky enough to be the “April Fool” this year. To finish off, here are a few famous April Fools pranks that have made waves over the years:

  1. The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest Prank – In 1957 the BBC broadcast a fake film of Swiss farmers picking freshly grown spaghetti. The prank was so successful that the BBC was later flooded with requests to purchase spaghetti plants.
  2. The Taco Liberty Bell Prank – In 1996 Taco Bell took out a full page add in The New York Times announcing that they had purchased the Liberty Bell to “reduce the country’s debt,” and that they had renamed it the “Taco Liberty Bell.”
  3. The Flying Penguins Prank – In 2008 the BBC reported that they had discovered a colony of flying penguins. They even went so far as to produce an elaborate video segment featuring Terry Jones walking among the penguins in Antarctica and following their flight to the Amazon rainforest.

 Do you have any memorable April Fools Day jokes you would like to share? Sound off below…

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By on April 1st, 2014

About Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane grew up in the hot desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona where she decided early on she wanted to write, if only to mentally escape her blistering surroundings. She has always been enamored of the arts and literature. As a child she often wrote short stories, and rewrote the endings of novels that she simply could not abide. She received her Undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was lucky enough to also spend a year studying at Oxford University. While she began her journey dreaming of the day she would sing opera in a large Manhattan theater, she found in the end she could not stand waitressing and simply could not give up books and her hopes of someday writing them. She is currently working as a freelance writer/editor and earning her Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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