I don’t approve of practical jokes. I seen nothing humorous in having your shoes set afire while you are wearing them. And dribble glasses are not only not practical they are also not funny - especially on “April Fools Day”, when every glass is a dribble glass and every shoe is a potential combustion chamber. And it turns out that this celebration of sociopathic behavior was invented by the French, a nation without humorous inclinations since Moliere slipped on a banana peel in 1673. But the story of April Fool’s Day began long before that tragic event, when in 1564 King Charles IX decided to follow Pope Gregory’s suggestion and begin the New Year with January rather than April. Why the French originally celebrated New Years Day on April 1st, I have no idea.
Now, in the 16th century France had only one road. It came out of Paris, turned left, looped all the way around the city and re-entered on the other side of town. This tragic design error,(the World’s first traffic circle) made communication with the majority of the nation difficult (and introducing the phrase “Out-of-the-loop”) and when combined with the French phone system - which was in no better shape in the 16th century than it is today - meant that a lot of peasants never got the King’s memo concerning the calendar adjustment.
So as they had every year thousands of these ill-informed peasants journeyed to Paris during the last week of March and on what they thought was New Year’s Eve, gathered in Bastille Square to say bonjour to 1565 and watch the guillotine drop. In unison they gleefully chanted, “Cing, quartre, trios, deux, un” and…No guillotine. No satisfying plop of a head into the basket. No champaign corks popping. No le Dick Clark. Instead of cheers and shouts of glee, mass ennui broke out amongst the masses. Now anyone who has experienced the Parisian version of “good manners” can imagine what came next; the locals mocked the bewildered peasants and made them feel like complete Americans,…ah,I mean,fools. But the way they did it makes the word “odd” seem inadequate.
For reasons beyond understanding the Parisians snuck up behind their confused country cousins, surreptitiously stuck a paper fish to the bumpkin’s backs and then shouted in a loud voice, “Poisson d’Avril!”, which translates as “April Fish!”, and then collapsed in raucous laughter and shouts of “tres bien.”
Why would they shout “April Fish!”? Perhaps because the first Parisian to label his victim an April “fool” immediately received a mouth full of fist, while calling the victim an April “fish” confused him just long enough so that the prankster could escape.
I have long thought that this uncharacteristic outbreak of French “humor” was actually inspired by Charles’ Italian Queen, Catherine de Medici, who was already famous throughout Europe for her gastronomical gags, such as her duck a la cyanide with a hemlock sauce. Only a Medici could see the humor in humiliating the people who handled your food.
But however it started the Parisians knew a good time when they saw it and they sent peasants on “fool’s errands”, and tricked peasants with “fool’s tales”, until every April 1st France reverberated with gales of laughter and shouts of “Poisson d’Avril!” Good times. But eventually the Parisian bullies grew bored with taunting the unresponsive peasants and in 1572 they shifted their attentions to the Huguenots. But by then the tradition of humiliating people for your own amusement on the first day of April had become popular. And like Disco music and Special Federal Prosecutors, once invented some institutions have proven impossible to stop.
This holiday for the humor-impaired spread around the globe with the new calendar like a fungus, infecting and evolving a little in each afflicted nation. The Germans added the “Kick Me” sign, and a second day which they call “Taily Day”, to further enjoy the frivolity of bruised buttocks. Ahh, those Germans.
In Portugal today’s innocent victim is hit with flour, sometimes while it is still in the bag - the flour not the victim. In Scotland the target is humiliatingly referred to as an “April Gawk” (?!), in England as a “Noodle” and in Canada as an “American.” I would have expected mental health professionals to call for a stop to this public insanity but evidently they are too busy setting their patients’ shoes on fire.
There is no defense for April Fool tomfoolery except a preemptive strike. So button up your top button, zip up your pants, tie your shoes and look out for that cat. And repeat after me; “Poison d’Avril, sucker!”
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FRIDAY: AN UNPAID DEBT