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Wednesday, 1 April, 1998, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
The silly season
Every year on April 1 the unwitting, the gullible and the plain stupid are caught out by tall stories or practical jokes. But why do people play these jokes at all?

And what is so special about April 1 that otherwise normal people do their best to make their nearest and dearest look stupid?

The origins of April Fool's Day are not very clear. But it seems safe to say that this eccentric festival is connected to the coming of spring.

Ancient Romans and Celts celebrated a festival of practical joking and mischief making at about the time of the Vernal Equinox, as do millions of India's Hindus.

Even the French have taken this festival to their hearts calling it not April Fool's Day but rather poisson d'avril, or April fish.

One 19th century English commentator reasoned that its origins probably lay somewhere in human nature itself rather than being the invention of one tribe or civilisation.

"To find the practice so widely prevalent over the earth, and with so near a coincidence of day, seems to indicate that it has had a very early origin amongst mankind," he said.

The first April Fool

There are two contestants for the first April Fool, the Greek goddess Demeter and the dove which, according to the Bible, Noah released from the Ark during the flood.

Both Demeter and the dove qualify for the title after being sent on fool's errands, an apparently popular early form of humour.

The goddess failed in her quest to rescue her daughter Persephone who had been whisked away to the underworld.

While hunting for her, Demeter mistook the echoes of her own voice as being her daughters cries for help and ended up both lost and daughterless.

Noah expected the dove to perform the seemingly hopeless task of finding signs of dry land while the whole earth was covered in water.


More recently the tradition has found a new lease of life on the Internet. Perhaps the most cunning of last year's japes was passed around the Net via e-mail.

Unsuspecting surfers found a posting purporting to be from the ultra serious and respectable Massachusetts Institute of Technology reminding computer users that the Internet was due for its annual spring clean and that as a result it would have to be closed for 24 hours while...

Bill Gates couldn't get inside my Mac could he?
"Five very powerful Japanese-built multi-lingual Internet-crawling robots (Toshiba ML-2274) situated around the world will search the Internet and delete any data that they find," the fake warning read.

Other April Fool's jokes include shareware which can transform the Macintosh operating system to resemble - horrors of horrors for Mac fans - Windows 95!

Spaghetti doesn't grow on trees

Bringing in the spaghetti harvest
As R Cambell observed in his 1869 book a Calendar of Days, "[For successful April fooling, it is necessary to have some considerable degree of coolness and face; as also some tact whereby to know in what direction the victim is most ready to be imposed upon by his own tendencies of belief."

So when on 1 April 1957 the very prim and proper Panorama programme informed viewers that,even if money didn't grow on trees, spaghetti did, the BBC's switchboards were flooded with calls from watching pasta fans enquiring where they could get hold of a spaghetti bush or two.

Don't believe everything you read

If you are planning an April Fool and you want to make it a success, make sure it is plausible. Newspapers are one of the perfect mediums for April Fools - after all, if it is in black and white, it has to be true, doesn't it?

Baroness Thatcher
Baroness Thatcher: Blair's ambassador?
Last year the Independent newspaper ran a story claiming Tony Blair, not yet prime minister, was courting former Conservative prime minister Baroness Thatcher and had even offered her a position as ambassador to Washington if she would endorse his candidacy in the general election and Labour were to win.

How many readers were taken in remains a mystery but at least one press agency failed to see the funny side. The Associated Press ran the story on the wires and at least one broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Company picked it up, running the story, albeit only briefly, in its news bulletins.

So be careful of what you read in the papers on Wednesday and if anyone asks you to get them a new bubble for the spirit level, or a tub of elbow grease, some pigeon's milk, or a left handed Mars Bar, think twice and then remember what the American writer Mark Twain said: "This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other 364."

BBC News
Panorama's classic April Fool from 1957 - the spaghetti tree harvest
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