Answer Man

Happy New Year and April Fools!

Q: You recently answered a question about how Jan. 1 became the official start to the new year. I’ve been told in the past that April Fools’ Day began as a way of ridiculing those who refused to accept this change and, instead, continued to celebrate April 1 as their New Year’s Day. Is this true?

Cathy Stoltz, of Belleville

A: What you’ve heard does seem to be the most popular explanation for the origin of a day when we must constantly be on guard lest we fall victim to some friend’s diabolical prank.

But, then again, this account in itself might be some mischievous historian’s idea of an April Fools’ joke on those trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. Unfortunately, nobody seems quite sure.

As you note, the common thinking as to the start of this day of high jinx involves the revolutionary change in calendars that occurred more than 500 years ago. Until then, many ancient cultures celebrated New Year’s Day in late March to coincide with the arrival of spring. However, March 25 was the Feast of the Annunciation in much of medieval Europe, so the more pagan New Year’s celebrations often were put off until April 1.

Then, on Feb. 24, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced his Gregorian calendar, which called for a bold change: The new year would begin on Jan. 1.

Over the next few months, a handful of countries signed on, and this is where the fun supposedly began. One of the countries that adopted the new calendar almost immediately was France. But as you might imagine, word of the change didn’t reach all of the French people with lightning speed in those days.

As a result, the story goes, some people refused to change, some forgot and some apparently even were tricked into celebrating New Year’s Day on April 1 as they always had. Those who had changed made fun of these rubes and reportedly sent them on fools’ errands or tried to trick them into believing other things that were not so. Hence, the origin of April Fools’ Day.

But as Barbara Mikkelson at snopes.com and several historians point out, there are problems with this theory.

For starters, there are references — albeit obscure — to an April Fools’ Day that predates Pope Gregory’s papal decree by two centuries. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s stories from Canterbury in the late 1300s, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is set on “March thritty days and two,” which some interpret as March 32 — or April 1. In the tale, a fox tricks a vain rooster named Chauntecleer.

Moreover, as early as 1508, French poet Eloy d’Amerval refers to a “poisson d’Avril” (April fool, or, literally, April fish). Even today, French children still tape a picture of a fish to their friends’ backsides on April 1 and cry “Poisson d’Avril!” when it is discovered. Some say the custom started from unsuspecting people being sent to market to buy freshwater fish when they were not in season. Others link it to the late-winter zodiacal sign of Pisces the fish. Either way, it predates the Gregorian calendar by a nearly a century.

Adding more doubt to the prevailing notion is the fact that England refused to adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752. Yet as early as 1686 John Aubrey wrote about April 1 as the “Fooles holy day” in Great Britain.

Some even say the day has biblical origins. One theory holds that it stems from the time when Noah sent out a dove on a fruitless search to find dry land, a sort of divine practical joke as it were. He may have done this on the first day of the Hebrew month that corresponds to April, the thinking goes.

Another says it started with the bureaucratic runaround Christ went on as he was sent from Annas to Caiaphas to Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate before his crucifixion. Both of these explanations, however, are considered highly unlikely.

In the end, historians say it probably has evolved simply as the result of pent-up energy needing to be unleashed after a long, cold, drab winter. Those fun-loving Romans, for example, celebrated the feast of Hilaria on March 25 to mark the arrival of spring.

Jokesters have worked to outprank each other ever since. In 1957, for example, the British Broadcasting Corp. in its typical no-nonsense style announced that the early arrival of spring had prompted the correspondingly early harvest of spaghetti in Switzerland.

As videos were shown of peasant women happily harvesting spaghetti from trees, whimsical claims were made about the foodstuff’s cultivation, including the fact that years of careful planting had produced spaghetti’s oddly uniform length. When hundreds of viewers called the BBC to ask if they could grow some themselves, they were advised to plant a small tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce.

But that hoax just tops a long list of pranks that the mass media have perpetrated over the years. Who can forget the special Burger King Whopper for southpaws in 1998 or the supposed sale of the Liberty Bell to Taco Bell in 1996? Even the Centralia Sentinel couldn’t resist getting in on the fun. In 1986, it reported that residents were being urged to flush their toilets in unison to drive a 10-foot alligator out of the city’s sewer system.

Happy New Year.

No foolin’.

Today’s trivia

What car’s brand-name is Latin for “I roll”?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: When the Russian Soyuz 11 spacecraft landed on June 30, 1971, the recovery team was in for the shock of its life.

“Outwardly, there was no damage whatsoever,” renowned Russian rocket scientist Kerim Kerimov recalled. “On opening the hatch, they found all three men in their couches, motionless, with dark-blue patches on their faces and trails of blood from their noses and ears.”

It was determined later that when the descent module separated from the orbital module during the preparation for re-entry, it forced open a ventilation valve that caused a rapid loss of cabin pressure and death within seconds. Today, Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev are considered the only men ever to have died while technically in outer space.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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