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F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 4/1/2005 1:40:53 PM ET 2005-04-01T18:40:53

First, let's consider what April Fool's Day isn't: a holiday.

As social significance goes, it's down in the murky underworld of festivities somewhere between Arbor Day and Flag Day — and both of those have far more useful purposes.

April Fool's offers no time off from work (though it's a great excuse for us media types to fritter away precious hours checking our NCAA brackets and dreaming up faux news stories), we don't commemorate anything (save possibly some French peasants' insolent stupidity — more on that later), no gifts are traded, and with the possible exception of a few overeager types, there isn't even a traditional April Fool's dish.

Nor does it hold even vague pretensions to helping mark spring's arrival.  Easter and Passover already accomplish that, along with the vernal equinox (the Japanese take that rather seriously) and a handful of other festivities. Heck, even May Day puts in its own bid for spring fun, assuming you ignore the socialist overtones.

Nope, at best April Fool's is just another day for mild silliness — and even in that meager task, it's a pale shadow of Halloween. Halloween, after all, has some legitimate cultural backbone, even if it has devolved into another excuse for candy conglomerates to provide dentists with steady business. OK, maybe you hate Halloween; maybe you think it's a pagan conspiracy, or a prelude to All Saints Day, or just a chance for the neighborhood tart to dust off her trusty French maid's outfit. But you can't deny the thing has a purpose.

But April Fool's?  It's the Kato Kaelin of wannabe holidays, always begging for one more morsel of fleeting fame. Are we all so bored we need to reset each others' alarms two hours too early, put salt in the sugar shaker and replace the day's paper with a two-week-old edition?

Don't answer that.

Blame the French
The origins of April Fool's are pretty fuzzy, though general consensus is that it's somehow tied to the papal implementation in 1582 of the Gregorian calendar, which ran in direct conflict with a handful of wacky Middle Ages notions that the new year and the equinox should run in parallel.

Actually, France's Charles IX had already revived a version of the Julian calendar in 1564. But, as several April Fool's creation myths tell it, French rubes in the countryside refused to believe the new calendar had been implemented, making them the first April fools.

That many other countries didn't adopt the modern calendar until the 18th century complicates it all. That the French refer to the April fool as the "poisson d'Avril" ("April fish") makes things even more puzzling, to say nothing of French kids' fondness for tacking drawings of fish to their classmates' backs. (Surely, there are better ways to mock the French than this. All you lunar calendar fans are probably having a good laugh right now.)

Need another clear sign that April Fool's is destined for the ash heap of lameness? Note that even America's corporate funmakers, who have corrupted every holiday short of Festivus, graciously bow out on this one.

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Why? There's probably not much money in disposable "April Fool's Day" tableware (that lack of traditional April Fool's foods) and you really don't want to be affiliated with April Fool's Day unless you happen to be a hand-buzzer manufacturer or an IRS auditor.

But perhaps they've all shied away because it takes serious talent to devise an April Fool's gag that doesn't suck. And talent is what most foolers seriously lack.

A glance through the Museum of Hoaxes' list of the top 100 April Fool's pranks only underscores this point. The British, who seem to have an unhealthy fondness for such things, win the sweepstakes for Most Creative Pranks.  They scored a No. 1 slot with 1957's now-infamous "spaghetti crop" prank, when the BBC managed to convince gullible viewers from Brighton to Newcastle that Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper crop thanks to the "virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil." 

Media conspiracy!
The quality of the pranks falls steadily downhill from there. And for every brilliant media hoax (NPR's "portable ZIP codes") you can find one that resounds with an equally big thud (universal pet health care, from NPR a year earlier).

What you notice after a while is that it's media organizations who seem to be the biggest perpetrators of April Fool's hijinks. (Hijinks being relative, of course.) Maybe it's our unquenchable desire to crack wise. Maybe it's that our lives are, indeed, just that boring.  While most media conspiracies are the fantasies of overcaffeinated paranoics, I have to admit y'all might have a point on this one.

So let's hope that we can devote ourselves to far more substantive fare this April. Like setting our clocks ahead an hour (I'm looking at you, April 3!), or eagerly dissecting any tidbits of wisdom that emanate from Simon Cowell's mouth.

As for April 1, perhaps my favorite factoid is brought to us by no less an authority on wacky fun than China Daily. Actually, it deals with April 2.

We are informed that the Scottish extend April Fool's festivities an extra 24 hours called Taily Day, which is "dedicated to pranks involving the buttocks."

Translated: "Kick Me" signs. If someone's really that fond of April Fool's Day, why stop at just one extra day? I'd be happy to give them a swift boot any day of the year.

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