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Culture

April Fool's humor is healthy for society, says folklorist

Beware: On April 1, it's worth double checking everything your friends say and even what you read or hear in the news. While April Fool's pranks have evolved over the past 500 years, we need them now more than ever.

Page of a calender showing April 1

There are several theories on how the April Fool's tradition got started

If someone in Germany says "April, April" to you, it means you've been the butt of a prank. It's the German version of the Anglo-Saxon "April Fool's": the tradition of playing a joke, mean spirited or otherwise, on your friends and acquaintances on April 1.

Exactly when the April Fool's prank tradition got started is up for debate, historians say. But it is clear that the tradition has a long history in the Western world.

It could go back to the ancient Romans, who held a massive celebration - including orgies and a host of practical jokes - in honor of the goddess Venus on April 1, says folklorist and historian Gunther Hirschfelder, but there are other theories as well.

"There is a discussion over a decision in 1530 by the Augsburger Diet in 1530," explained Hirschfelder. "They planned to standardize a currency on April 1. But shortly before that day, the date was pushed back. Currency speculators were then ridiculed and made fun of."

An accidental tradition

Wild geese

In the past, people were sent on wild goose chases on April 1

However, the most plausible explanation is that King Charles IX of France started the April Fool's prank - without meaning to.

While he was in the midst of reforming the Gregorian calendar in 1564, he moved the New Year's celebration - which had always been held on April 1 - to January 1. But, communication at the era being what it was, a lot of people didn't get the memo - and celebrated anyway.

"We can assume that in the wake of this calendar confusion, people made a mistake at first," said Hirschfelder. "Then they used it to their advantage and continued the pattern, playing April Fool's pranks on friends, neighbors and relatives, or even on children."

While the practice of practical joking has endured, the style has undergone some changes, says the folklorist and historian. In earlier times, the pranks often had a physical component - like sending someone off on a long trip to fulfill some invented task.

"Today you could never get away with that, it would be severely punished. No one would put up with being sent, say, on a car trip from Bonn to Stuttgart to pick up something that doesn't even exist," Hirschfelder said.

Look your victim in the eye

In modern society, the April Fool's joke has fallen out of favor. Jobs and careers are taken too seriously, and the pace and pressures of work are too fast to leave time for practical jokes.

Sunflowers

A little humor helps balance out all the bad news

Also, April Fool's jokes often require direct contact with friends and co-workers - not a given in today's Internet-oriented world, according to Hirschfelder.

"That means April Fool's jokes are just not practicable anymore," he added. "You need to see the look on the person's face - sheepish or astonished, or angry."

Today, it is mostly the media that play the practical jokes, moving the tradition along in a new, mass cultural direction. Fake news, odd and unbelievable stories - those are the modern-day April Fool's tricks.

"Seen from the perspective of cultural studies, we need these new kinds of April Fool's jokes," said Hirschfelder. "They are a counterweight to the reams of bad news that we are otherwise flooded with. Every society needs a hefty dose of humor, simply in order to survive."

Author: Ralf Goedde (jen)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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