by Curt Kovener
The Times has been in print for 40 years and we can easily count on one hand the number of times the Times was published on April Fools Day.
There’s no question that April Fools’ Day is one of the most widely recognized non-religious holidays in the Western world. Children prank parents, coworkers prank coworkers, and national news outlets still prank their readers.
How did April Fools’ Day begin, and how did it become an international phenomenon? The totally-legit, not-pulling-your-leg answer to the origin of April Fools’ Day is: Nobody really knows.
April Fools’ Day is apparently an ancient enough tradition that the earliest recorded mentions, like the following excerpt from a 1708 letter to Britain’s Apollo magazine, ask the same question we do: “Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?”
One likely predecessor to the origin of April Fools day is the Roman tradition of Hilaria (the cheerful ones), a spring festival which included games, processions, and masquerades, during which disguised commoners could imitate nobility to devious ends.
It’s hard to say whether this ancient revelry’s similarities to modern April Fools’ Day are legit or coincidence, as the first recorded mentions of the holiday didn’t appear until several hundred years later. The first mention of April Fools’ Day in Britain comes in 1686 when biographer John Aubrey described April 1st as a “Fooles holy day.”
Some of the greatest pranks of somewhat modern time were:
On April 1, 1835 the New York Sun prints a hoax that astronomers have discovered life on the moon and the US was gripped in fear of moon men.
On April 1, 1957 a BBC news show depicts the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest with farmers pulling strands of spaghetti from trees. The network was deluged with callers asking where they can buy a spaghetti tree.
April 1, 1978 the residents of Sydney Australia gawk at an iceberg floating in Sydney Harbor. Prankster Dick Smith claimed he towed it from Antarctia and the Australian Navy offers to help moor it. Eventually everyone realizes that it is just a barge Smith covered in white plastic and firefighting foam.
April 1, 1980: The BBC (again, those rascals) broadcast that the four clock faces of the iconic Big Ben will be switched to digital and its clock hands will be given away to the first eight callers. Many listeners were shocked and angry and called Members of Parliment to protest. But thousands of others called to get their free clock hand from Big Ben.
On April 1, 1997, a widely circulated email claimed the chemical compound DHMO is colorless, odorless and kills thousands of people each year by accidental inhalation. The email called for its ban from production claiming that it is now found in lakes, streams and rivers and is a major component of acid rain. Tens of thousands of internet believers became panic stricken until DHMO was revealed to be water.
Though it didn’t occur on April 1 and was not intended as a joke, on Oct. 30, 1938, the day before Halloween, an Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of ‘War of the Worlds’ was so real that it convinced millions of listeners that the earth was under attack by aliens from another planet.