Pranks a lot: Celebrating April Fools’ Day

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 4/7/11] 
Last Friday was April 1, also known as April Fools’ Day. In a world that is otherwise dominated by serious issues and bad news — especially lately — there’s something reassuring about a day that encourages everyone to lighten up.

The origins of April Fools’ Day are murky. And why shouldn’t they be, I suppose. After all, it’s a day that celebrates pranks and hoaxes so it makes sense that its history is similarly dubious.

According to Wikipedia (so it must be true!), April Fools’ Day can trace its roots back to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (1392) — specifically, the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in which a sly fox tricks a vain rooster.

Other accounts from the Middle Ages suggest that the day coincided with the shift in celebration of the new year, which at the time was observed in the spring.

When Pope Gregory XIII introduced his eponymous calendar to replace the longstanding Julian one, the first of the year was moved from the end of March to January. April Fools’ Day, then, grew out of the tricks these early adopters would play on those who still observed the new year in March.

I’ve written recently about holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras, days when societal norms are suspended and people are permitted — however tacitly — to behave in ways that otherwise might be frowned upon.

While April Fools’ Day is a far cry from the beads, booze and debauchery of these other two holidays, there is an acknowledgement that April 1 is a day where everyone is allowed to be silly.

With this granted silliness, there is also the anticipation that not all things may be what they seem. Information from friends and family is suspect, news stories warrant second reads, websites just flat out lie to you — nothing can be trusted.

Indeed, in the Digital Age, April Fools’ Day is an Internet hold day of obligation. In an environment where reality is completely malleable, everything is fair game.

Google, in particular, is notorious for its April Fools’ pranks. This year, they capitalized on the popularity of gesture-recognition technology common in new video-game consoles like the Wii and Xbox Kinect to introduce Gmail Motion, the first gesture-recognition email service. The announcement came in the form of a series of videos featuring “experts” and a very awkward-looking demonstration of how it works.

In the blogger world, Blurt, 7 Days’s blog, caught my attention early with their post about Lockheed Martin buying Burlington Telecom to form Burlington Lockheed Telecom or “BLT.”

The post was a pitch per fect breaking news story that, by its end, had devolved into Big Brother paranoia and the potential of an arms race of sorts between BLT and other telecommunications providers like Fairpoint and Comcast.

In my family, my mother is the prankster in chief, and her trickery is certainly not confined to April 1. Growing up, our house was a den of prankster one-upmanship between my mother and my sister Jill.

For a time, you couldn’t open a closet door or walk into a dark room without having someone jump out at you. And it didn’t stop there: fake bugs were left in beds and under pillows, cold water was tossed into showers, faces would appear outside darkened windows — it was a hilarious run that kept the whole family on its toes.

Naturally, April Fools’ Day was a day when my mother would really let loose. Some of her pranks were subtle — like moving things around in the house or discretely planting a false piece of gossip into conversation.

Other times, they were downright devious. Last year, she phoned my niece and nephew before school to tell them that a blizzard was on its way into Rutland and that school would surely be canceled.

From her house in Mendon (less than 2 miles away) she reported whiteout conditions that were on their way to Rutland. The kids bought it, hanging up the phone and racing to window in anticipation of the storm that would be arriving any minute. My mom called back seconds later to deliver a victorious “April Fools!”

A few years back, I resolved to get my mom as good as she always got us. At the time, I was taking a semester off from college to travel the country, and had ended up California for a while. Traveling on a budget, I had taken a job for a month working at small a farm outside Sacramento in exchange for room and board.

Upon arrival, I learned that the farm was run by Hare Krishnas. Some people might have split, but I decided the stick it out. The people were nice — in a zombified, culty sort of way — and the food was decent (at the time, I was experimenting with being a vegetarian/vegan so I fit right in).

Right off, my hosts realized they weren’t going to convert me; though, that didn’t stop them from trying at every turn.

I began to see this as an opportunity to have some fun with my mom.

For about a week or two leading up to April 1, I’d call my mother to tell her how great life was on the farm— “These people really got it figured out,” I’d say, slowly planting the seed of worry in her head.

Finally, on April 1, I called my mom to tell her I had some “big news.”

“I’m going to stay — for good,” I said, adding that I needed here to send the rest of my belongings west so I could sell them and give the money to the community I was about to join.

There was a long pause on the other end as I continued expounding on how “everything finally made sense” all the while pinching myself as I tried desperately not to laugh.

She began to say something about how I should think this through when I cut her off with a hearty declaration of “April Fools!”.

She breathed a sigh of relief, admitting that she had been getting concerned in recent weeks. I reassured her that there was nothing to worry about and said goodbye, knowing that I had punked her as good as anyone ever had. (To this day, she’s yet to get me back.)

In a world that often needs a good laugh, April Fools’ Day reminds us that we don’t always have to take things so seriously — even for just one day.


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