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A Fool’s tale

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| April 4, 2023 1:00 AM

Making fun of others isn't always funny, but making fun together is very tempting. Fan or foe of April Fool’s Day (the snickering prankster probably enjoys it more than some unamused prank-ees), a cautious tongue-in-cheek tone last weekend would’ve been well warranted. If you scanned April 1 headlines and found some of them a bit, well, outlandish, hope you didn’t take it at face value. Many media organizations, including this one, can’t resist the chance to lighten up.

Even some of the wildest jokes the Press has played in the past pulled a fast one on readers. Despite the hints — always penned by “April Fuhl,” a missing jump page, silly names — readers still reached out to find out where the money tree actually was. When the giant, aerial sign was coming down to block our lake view. Where they could sign up for the free resort room and the sleep study. The vast majority, even when fooled, take it as knee-slapping fun.

Like it or lump it, what fool elevated the practical joke to near-holiday status? No one is sure; theories range from the ho-hum (confusion over a calendar shift and the vernal equinox) to “let’s party” (Ancient Rome’s festival of Hilaria). Hilaria-ous.

Regardless, all histories of foolery hold one thing in common: Spring.

Back in the day, spring was the official start of a new year in darn near every culture, often celebrated on the first new moon after the vernal equinox (this year not until late April). In a few across the Middle East and Central Asia, it still is. In the 16th century, France switched from the Gregorian to the Julian (Roman) calendar we now use, with its start in January. The story goes that some foolish Frenchmen continued to celebrate around April.

April Fools.

Celebrating spring is an old notion. The ancient Celts, Greeks, and many others held end-of-winter festivals around the spring equinox, with the earth's rebirth symbolizing hope, spiritual gateways, and life renewed. Joyful festivities often involved dressing-up and acting silly (probably after the wine was poured), so scholars generally point to these as April Fool’s Day sources.

Of course, there are the “fools” themselves — the name given jesters in royal court tradition, to entertain a bored monarch. While we see jesters as professional clowns, they were originally servants, criminals, students, debtors and shepherds — almost anyone appointed to the task. In freer courts they heckled their society and rulers, permitted to utter what might have earned punishment if said by anyone else. Cleverness of tongue was the most important qualification.

Think less prank and more wit.

According to one story from the early fourth century, so enamored of his jester was Roman Emperor Constantine that he allowed his fool one day to be king. "King Kugel," named after a favorite dish, declared the date would forever be a day of absurdity.

That probably wasn’t April 1, but who can prove otherwise?

This oft-repeated story has no reliable confirmation, but its first known modern report was in 1983 by The Associated Press. The source was a self-proclaimed "professor emeritus of American humor" at Boston University.

Its publication date? April 1 of course.

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Sholeh Patrick is a skeptical columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.