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Many of the world’s cultures have a traditional time of the year set aside just for fun and laughter, when tricks, comedy, pranks, and practical jokes prevail. That’s why April Fool’s Day has become a tradition.
Anthropologists call these holidays “renewal festivals,” because they purposely upend the established social order with hilarity, mayhem, and misrule.
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This kind of intentional fun resonates for Baha’is all around the world, no matter what culture they come from. Abdu’l-Baha constantly encouraged happiness and laughter among the Baha’is, for example, saying that smiles and laughter are “a spiritual state:”
Laughter is caused by the slackening or relaxation of the nerves. It is an ideal condition and not physical. Laughter is the visible effect of an invisible cause. For example, happiness and misery are super-sensuous phenomena. One cannot hear them with the ears or touch them with his hands. Happiness is a spiritual state.
The Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected global leadership body of the world’s Baha’is, has written that:
Humour, happiness, joy are characteristics of a true Baha’i life. Frivolity palls and eventually leads to boredom and emptiness, but true happiness and joy and humour that are parts of a balanced life that includes serious thought, compassion and humble servitude to God are characteristics that enrich life and add to its radiance.
So in the pursuit of some of that joy, let’s explore the multicultural origins of April Fool’s Day.
One of the oldest known renewal festival traditions came from ancient Persia. Modern-day Iranians and others still celebrate Sizdah Bedar on the 13th day of the Persian Naw-Ruz or New Year, which (because of the lunar calendar) usually falls sometime around April 1st. On that day, since 536 BC, Persians have celebrated the coming of spring by going outside for picnics and playing jokes and pranks on each other.
Sizdah Bedar may have emerged from the ancient Zoroastrian belief that laughter and joy symbolize the expelling or throwing away of all bad thoughts.
Similarly, the ancient Romans celebrated a festival on March 25th called Hilaria, which they observed by wearing masks, holding masquerades, and promoting “general good cheer.”
The April Fool’s Day tradition in France and French-speaking Canada is called poisson d’avril, which means April’s fish. On April 1, pranksters try to secretly attach a paper fish to peoples’ backs. Italy and Belgium also celebrate April’s Fish, which historians believe emerged from the idea that a young, innocent fish was the easiest one to catch.
Poland celebrates prima aprilis (Latin for the first day of April) as their national day of jokes, when people concoct elaborate hoaxes and pranks – which can and do originate even from government and public institutions. For the Poles, not much that is serious happens on prima aprilis.
During March in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Hindus celebrate Holi, the festival of colors, with fun for children, general merrymaking, parades and public games. Holi celebrants mark the coming of spring with bonfires, throwing colored powder and perfume on each other, and generally ignoring, for a short period, any distinction of class and caste.
In late February the world’s Baha’is celebrate Ayyam-i-Ha, or Intercalary Days, the four or five days (in Leap years) before the last month of the year in the Baha’i calendar. The Baha’is rejoice during Intercalary Days, and their celebrations include parties, feasting, hospitality, the giving of gifts, and charity for the poor.
In the West, April Fool’s Day – sometimes called “All Fools Day” – probably evolved from many cultures at around the same time, all centered on vernal equinox celebrations and the giddy joy and excitement of the coming of spring.
The April Fool’s tradition probably began sometime around 1582 in the West, when France adopted Pope Gregory XIII’s Gregorian calendar and shifted their New Year’s celebration from the first days of spring to January 1st. Without mass communication the new calendar didn’t reach everyone quickly, and even when it did many people refused to throw out the Julian calendar. Eventually those people were called fools, and were subject to ridicule, practical jokes, and “fool’s errands.” As time passed, the harassment turned into more gentle pranks, tricks, hoaxes, and practical jokes.
By the way, your shoe is untied. No, seriously.
One fun April Fool’s Day site – www.museumofhoaxes.com – reports that some of the best-known April Fool’s jokes have been mass media-perpetrated:
- On 1 April 1957, the respected BBC news show Panorama announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. It accompanied this announcement with footage of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees. Huge numbers of viewers were taken in. Many called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC diplomatically replied, “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
- The April 1998 issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter contained an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the ‘Biblical value’ of 3.0. Soon the article made its way onto the internet, and then it rapidly spread around the world, forwarded by email. It only became apparent how far the article had spread when the Alabama legislature began receiving hundreds of calls from people protesting the legislation. The original article, which was intended as a parody of legislative attempts to circumscribe the teaching of evolution, was written by physicist Mark Boslough.
- During an interview on BBC Radio 2, on the morning of April 1, 1976, the respected British astronomer Patrick Moore announced that an extraordinary astronomical event was about to occur. At exactly 9:47 am, the planet Pluto would pass directly behind Jupiter, in relation to the Earth. This rare alignment would mean that the combined gravitational force of the two planets would exert a stronger tidal pull, temporarily counteracting the Earth’s own gravity and making people weigh less. Moore called this the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect.
Moore told listeners that they could experience the phenomenon by jumping in the air at the precise moment the alignment occurred. If they did so, he promised, they would experience a strange floating sensation. At 9:47, Moore declared, “Jump now!” A minute passed, and then the BBC switchboard lit up with dozens of people calling in to report that the experiment had worked! A Dutch woman from Utrecht said that she and her husband had floated around the room together. Another caller claimed she had been seated around a table with eleven friends and that all of them, including the table, had begun to ascend. But not everyone was happy. One angry caller complained he had risen from the ground so rapidly that he hit his head on the ceiling, and he wanted compensation.
So today, on April Fool’s Day, go ahead, play a (gentle) joke on those around you, and create some joy.
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