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Gotcha! April Fool's Day is a celebration of pranks, pranksters

by Pam Marra

STAFF WRITER

In 16th-century France, April 1 was celebrated as the start of the new year. But in 1562, Pope Gregory introduced a new calendar for the Christian world and the new year then fell on Jan. 1. Legend has it that some people refused to believe the date change and continued celebrating New Year's Day on April 1.

Five hundred years later, rubber chickens are selling like hot cakes in their honor.

"The people who continued celebrating on the first of April were called April fools and ridiculed by being sent foolish gifts and invitations to nonexistent parties," explains Dr. Judy Byers, director of the West Virginia Folk Life Center at Fairmont State College. "Others played tricks on them or sent them on a 'fool's errand' or tried to make them believe that something false was true," she says.

The celebration of pranks and pranksters continues today partly because people still like a good laugh and partly, Byers says, because they can get away with it.

"It's only on this one day of the year we can try to fool someone or lie to someone and nobody will really get mad.

"We love jokes, we love word play, we love to tease other people. It's just in our psyche. And it seems to be cross-cultural. Many countries have various celebrations," she says.

In France, April 1 is called "Poisson d'Avril," (April Fish). On that day, French children fool their friends by taping a papier maché fish or drawing of a fish to their friends' backs.

When the youngster discovers this trick, the prankster yells "Poisson d'Avril!"

"That tradition came from the fact that if you are fooled, you are hooked -- hooked like a fish," Byers says, adding that the French are probably the most involved in celebrating the day.

In Scotland, April Fool's Day is called "April Gawk," and the butt of a prank on that day is called a "gawk." In Germany and Norway, it's not only celebrated on the first day of April, but also on the last day, as well.

"All Fool's Day is celebrated on Dec. 28 in Mexico and centers around the borrowing of objects," Byers says. "If anyone is foolish enough to lend their items, then those things borrowed on that day are not returned."

The general consensus, though, is that no matter where or when it is celebrated, April Fool's Day always involves pranks, which range from the old standards -- putting salt in the sugar bowl, telling people they have a hole in their clothes or food on their face, making fake phone calls -- to the more ingenious and creative.

"We have been selling rubber chickens like crazy," says Monica Lowery, assistant manager at Spencer Gifts in Meadowbrook Mall, Bridgeport. "But I'm not sure exactly what everyone is doing with them. I think I don't want to know."

Lowery says that the most popular April Fool's prank gift this year is a fake lottery ticket.

"You scratch off the front and it says you've won $10,000. But when you look at the back to see where to redeem it, it says something like 'Gotcha,' or 'Sorry, this isn't real.'"

Another popular item, she says, are fortune cookies with unfortunate fortunes in them.

"April Fool's Day is fun and it gives everybody a chance to play tricks on everybody else," said Lowery.

But Byers believes the celebration goes a bit deeper.

"The more we study folklore, the more we begin to see that we really have very few differences worldwide. Folklore helps us understand people in their own context. We learn that everyone enjoys a practical joke."

Everyone?

"Yes, even me. I love to pull them on people. When my mother was alive, we would always see who would get the other one first. I love to tease my daughter and my husband, too.

"And many times I've walked into my classroom and told the students to take out a pen and piece of paper because we were going to have a test. Then I'd turn around and yell, 'April Fool's Day.' I loved seeing the looks on their faces. That never gets old," Byers says.

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