April Fools’ Day – Pranking tradition goes back centuries (seriously)

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

If this were England about 250 years ago, today would be a good day to stay in bed until noon.
“You could only play pranks on people in the morning,” said Robert Wolverton Sr., professor of classics at Mississippi State University. The Brits considered it bad luck to do it in the afternoon on April 1.”
The tradition has changed over the centuries, so Americans don’t need to limit their pranking to the early hours of April Fools’ Day.
Thanks goodness, said Geri Wills, a Thaxton resident and prankster who turns 32 today.
“I would rather do it in the afternoon,” she said. “They might be ill in the morning. Too early. They might not be ready.”
One of her favorite gags is to use a rubber band to hold the kitchen sink sprayer’s handle in place.
“Whenever they turn the water on, it sprays them,” she said. “If you get it just right, it will hit them in the face.”
Today, you’re free to put fake vomit on someone’s countertop or plant a whoopee cushion in a chair. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as you’re ready for the consequences.
“I’ve been cussed a time or two, but they didn’t really mean it,” Wills said. “Some people have tried to get me back, but most of them are scared to because they don’t know what they’d get back, or they know enough to leave well enough alone.”
While that April Fools’ Day warning sinks in, let’s consider something else: The significance of April 1 stretches back thousands of years. Glance into the past and you’ll find today is connected to a stolen daughter, a conquering goddess, young fish and “kick me” signs.

A Solomon-like decision
We’ll start in ancient Rome, where, the story goes, Proserpina was stolen away by Pluto, god of the underworld. Her mother, Ceres, tried to convince Jupiter to intervene. He was Proserpina’s father, but also Pluto’s brother.
“So Jupiter’s decision was, ‘We’ll let Proserpina spend part of the time up on earth with her mother, Ceres, and part of the time down in the underworld with her husband, Pluto,’” Wolverton said.
From March 25 to April 1, the Romans celebrated the new year with the budding of spring. That’s when Proserpina rejoined her mother.
“April 1 was a day of rejoicing,” Wolverton said, “because it was a new beginning.”
The nature of the celebration changed years later, after the Romans sought help from the goddess Cybele to defeat Hannibal and the Carthaginians.
“Cybele had a lover, whose name was Attis,” Wolverton said. “Attis had died and had gone to the underworld, but he was allowed to be resurrected on one day every year, and it was April 1.”
The Romans won the war, and combined Ceres and Proserpina’s story with Cybele and Attis’. The religious observance became a more serious event after the merger.
“Not necessarily a pranking situation. No,” Wolverton said.

Hijinks
The French claim they first injected silliness into April 1.
“If you remember in 1582 – I know you remember that – in February of that year, Pope Gregory XIII signed a decree changing the calendar. Ever after that, we’ve had what is called the Gregorian calendar,” Wolverton said. “The calendar was so out of whack that he decided what had to be done was to drop 10 days in that year, so in February of 1582, he announced the change would take place in October. Oct. 5 would be followed by Oct. 14. Those days would just be lost.”
Pope Gregory simply got on his Twitter account (#TheBigCheeseXIII) and put the word out to the adoring, accepting masses.
Actually, as Wolverton said, “The news didn’t get out to all the people the next year, so they were still wandering around under the old calendar. They didn’t know a change had taken place. Plus, there were some in France who were rebellious against this. They didn’t want to change the calendar.”
Those missing days offered a prime opportunity for shenanigans.
“Some sent out invitations to people they didn’t necessarily like to all sorts of events which would be taking place on those days when there were no days.”
Still today, the French call it “Poisson d’Avril,” which translates to “The fish of April.”
“They felt that young fish are very easily caught,” Wolverton said. “This was a way to play on their friends and others.”

Across the pond
The British adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, and had to move New Year’s from March 25 to Jan. 1. Again, days went missing, creating tiny bubbles of chaos. It wasn’t a universally loved decision, and April 1 became an outlet for aggression heavily watered down with humor.
“When I was in school, people tried to pin a little note on the back of you that said, ‘Kick me,’” Wolverton said. “They think that started with the British. They liked putting things on the back of people.”
Here’s another instance where Wills disagrees with the British.
“A ‘Kick me’ sign now might be considered bullying,” she said. “You can’t do what you used to do.”
But April Fools’ remains a chance to break with normal, adult behavior. It’s a day for fake spiders and snakes, and the creative use of the truth, otherwise known as lying.
“I usually know who I can prank and who I can’t prank,” Wills said. “Most of them know it’s happening before it happens, but they still fall for it.”
She’s stolen a friend’s clothes and towel from outside a shower, and also has a history of “flashing” people with a shirt that makes it seem as though she’s wearing a bikini.
Wills enjoys herself, and she isn’t alone. Today is “Gowk Day” in Scotland, where “gowk” is the word for “cuckoo.” They have an observance in India, and the Japanese call it “Doll’s Day,” Wolverton said.
Feel free to have your fun, and don’t forget about those pesky consequences.
Also, understand you’ll have a hard time pulling a truly original prank.
“I tell my students, ‘If you come up with a new idea, come talk to me because probably somebody else had it a long time ago,’” the classics professor said. “I guess the Americans can’t claim this one.”

scott.morris@journalinc.com