April Fools' Day has always held a special place in my wack-o heart. As a kid, I was forever playing pranks. But I thought I hit the motherlode when, at the grand age of nine and lying in bed the night before April Fools', the thought of putting salt into the sugar bowl hit me. To a nine-year-old it felt like the most hilarious idea in the world and, of course, one never done before.
Mom and dad woke up and ate breakfast first so they would be the victims, and I was surprisingly thrilled at the thought of my dad dumping a teaspoon of salt instead of sugar into his coffee, stirring it around and then taking a big gulp. Or my parents sprinkling salt over their porridge, pouring on the cream and then eating a big spoonful. Ick — it would be excellent!
So I jumped out of bed and, following my inner prankster, crept down the hall past all the closed bedroom doors that separated the sleepers from the rest of the world, including the skinny little kid about to pull off her first big April Fools' joke.
April Fools' is coming up this Sunday, so if you've never enjoyed a good prank you've got plenty of time to plan. One of the easiest venues is around that most universal junction of all things social, cultural and vital — food.
But first, a short tour around the idea of the day itself, thanks to Jack Santino and his book, All Around the Year.
Many of the days we now mark with fun and tomfoolery — like April Fools' — originated close to winter solstice. It's no coincidence they all fall in spring, nor that they cross-connect.
Around the winter solstice, ancient Persians celebrated by turning things on their head for 12 days, such as masters and slaves exchanging places. The Romans continued the topsy-turvy tradition with Saturnalia, another 12-day winter feast.
The idea of inversion carried on in medieval times as the Feast of Fools on December 28, when peasants dressed as clergy and led donkeys into church as a parody. Other central and southern European carnivals were also marked by inversion, like carnevale in Venice ("carn" from the Latin for "flesh", and "vale" or "val" from "levar", "to put away"). Masked revellers, often drunk and rowdy, mocked social institutions like the church or their masters, all with permission in a condoned blowing off of steam.
The Feast of Fools was eventually banned in the 1400s, but you can't keep a good thing down. It is still with us in the revelry of New Year's Eve and in the pranks of April Fools' Day, or All Fools' Day, as it is known elsewhere — both names echoing the original.