Woster: Why do we even observe April Fools' Day?

I’ve always associated pranks on April Fools’ Day with the most outgoing, most extroverted of the people in my world.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

It’s nearly April Fools’ Day, that time when a person is either the prankster or the guy wondering if he really has an orange-and-black, six-legged creature crawling up his back.

Me, I was always the one worrying about the creature. Looking back, I think the first day I walked into a school classroom, the rest of the primary-grade kids pegged me as a patsy, an easy mark for pranks, whether benign or malicious.

“Here cometh April again, and as far as I can see the world hath more fools in it than ever." The English essayist Charles Lamb is supposed to have said that. I wish I’d known that quote as a kid being pranked.

April Fools’ Day is a one-day version of that staple of public-school physical education classes called Dodgeball. If April Fools’ Day is a time to separate the world into pranksters and patsies, Dodgeball was a way to separate junior high students into throwers and targets. In my experience, if you weren’t throwing a ball, you were taking one in the face. SPLAT!

I’ve always associated pranks on April Fools’ Day with the most outgoing, most extroverted of the people in my world. The patsies like me? We’re the introverts, the ones who would rather be anyplace in the world but in front of a guy telling us that our pants are unzipped or we have whipped cream on our nose or broccoli in our teeth. Maybe some other introverts have figured out how to deal with that without crawling into an emotional cave. I never did.


Why do we even observe April Fools’ Day? (And, by the way, I looked up the Associated Press Stylebook guidance on the phrase, and they recommend the apostrophe after the “s’’ in Fools) Well, I found this on the website: “Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563. In the Julian Calendar, as in the Hindu calendar, the new year began with the spring equinox around April 1.

It goes on to say that “People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes and were called April fools.” These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs.

The fish apparently symbolized a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person. People I know used to call such folks “guppies," but I rather like the general term patsies. I don’t like it so much when it refers to me and my tendency to be the butt of April Fools’ Day pranks, but the world isn’t always mine to shape.

A guy I worked with, also a pretty introverted sort, tried to beat the pranksters at their own game once. We worked at a place that had staff meetings every week, whether we needed them or not. Extroverts dominated the meetings. The boss came up with the notion that we should take turns running meetings, and that we should liven things up with a question-of-the-day. My friend, whose turn came on April 1, ended his meeting with this question: “What’s your most memorable April Fools’ prank?"

Good question, right? Nothing but blanks. “Gee, I can’t think of a thing." “Wow, I was never really into pranks." My friend ended up feeling like a fool, even if he didn’t have an orange-and-black, six-legged critter crawling up his back.

I quoted Charles Lamb earlier. Here’s one attributed to Mark Twain that’s worth repeating. “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year." I don’t want to give off negative vibes, but Twain’s observation seems more and more accurate as the years pass.

I never knew what to say to April Fools’ Day pranksters. Maybe this Winston Churchill quote would have been enough: “The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes."

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