My hosts giggled as I unsuspectingly bit into the rubber hot dog, all doused with mustard and nestled neatly in the soft, white bun. “April Fool!”, they gleefully chanted as I turned a glaring shade of crimson.

I should have known! It was April first, the day when practical jokes and pranks are played on the unprepared.

April Fools’ Day. When did it start? No one knows for sure. It possibly dates back as far as 1582, when France switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1583. In the Julian calendar, the new year began with the spring equinox, around April 1. News traveled slowly in those days, and some people, unaware that the new year had moved to Jan. 1, continued to celebrate it during the last week of March. These people became the butt of jokes and hoaxes, and were called “April Fools.” One prank involved having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril,” or “April Fish,” likening them to young, easily caught fish, or gullible persons.

As April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century, a tradition began in Scotland, known as “hunting the gowk.” During this event, people were sent on phony errands (“gowk” is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool). The occasion was followed by Tallie Day, which called for pinning fake tails, or “kick me” signs, on people.

In modern times, newspapers, radio and TV stations, and websites, have participated in the April 1 tradition of reporting outrageous fictional claims that have fooled their audiences.

In 1957, the BCC reported that Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop, and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees. In 1992, National Public Radio ran a segment of former President Nixon, played by an actor, announcing that he was running for President again. In 1998, after Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper,” clueless customers were rushing to buy the fake sandwich.

For the average prankster, there is always the classic April Fools’ Day trick of painting the inside of the ketchup bottle red, or swapping the contents of sugar and salt containers.

While the exact history is wrapped in mystery, the jokes and hoaxes of April Fools’ Day by the media and general public have ensured the holiday’s perpetual life.

Louise Whiteside, a longtime resident of D.C. and Maryland, now resides in the Colorado Rockies. She loves memoir writing, bargain hunting, cooking, country music, theater and travel.

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