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April Fool’s Day March 30, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Pop Culture.

On Tuesday it will be April Fool’s Day, but instead of writing yet again about what John Kennedy Toole called the “confederacy of dunces” who seem to be running our world, I thought I might ask why this commemoration exists; why is it in April; who are the fools in question and why should we remember them?

It started out in a perfectly mundane way, with spring returning to the Northern Hemisphere. This is signalled by the Vernal Equinox, which usually coincides with Easter. In the old pre-Christian calendars this was where the new year traditionally began. Winter was over, the sun was nearer and life could return to normal.

Spring was a big deal in those days. With no electricity, sewerage or lighting, primitive man had to rough it with fire, candles and rudimentary shelter. History tells us that during winter, many people sewed themselves into body suits made from cloth or animal hide, which stayed on their bodies until spring.

Imagine living in a virtual tracksuit that was never washed and only came off when the warm weather returned? Even worse, imagine what it was like to live in a house with other people wearing similar suits, in rooms clogged with the smoke from cooking fires and flame torches.

When spring came and the survivors could shed their reeking second skins, there was good reason for them to act foolishly. The returning light and warmth seemed like a miracle, giving these poor souls licence to cut loose.

The pagan traditions endorsed this especially. In March the Romans kept the Hilaria celebration, which honoured the resurrection of Attis, son of the fertile earth Mother Cybele. Similar practical jokes and funny disguises also existed in Northern Europe where they observed an ancient festival to honour Lud, the Celtic god of humour.

In India the Holi celebration was held during late February or early March. A festival of colour, it saw street celebrants throw tinted powders at each other, until everyone was covered in a spectacular array of shades. “Spring Fever” was a time of reckless foolishness, exuberant jokes and, inevitably, sacrifices. For the ancient cultures, something living had to die to make the affirmation of life complete.

The people who did the killing called it the mysterious cycle of life and death. The doomed animals and people (prisoners of war, disobedient slaves, followers of a different religion) probably had a different perception, but he who holds the sword makes the rules.

So that’s the remote origin of April Fool’s Day; an essentially pagan ceremony marked by a disrespect for those in power, accompanied by an eager fertility ritual. Babies born in the dead of winter were at risk, so the plan was to breed them early and pop them out before the first winter frosts arrived.

The big switch came in 1582, after Christianity had become the dominant religion of Northern Europe. They created a new annual cycle that involved a switch from the old Julian to the new Gregorian calendar. That shifted the beginning of the year from the end of March to the first of January, causing everything to change.

The Christmas rituals were overlaid onto the Roman festival of Saturnalia, while the Easter rituals were incorporated into the resurrection of Attis. But the rogue spirit of April Fool’s Day seemed unquenchable. It was placed on April 1 and became famous as a day of pranks and folly.

The Fool who ruled the day was not stupid or clumsy, he was a skilled practitioner of satire and mockery. He could deride authority figures, ridicule the pompous, tease the wealthy and turn a blind eye to sexual dalliance.

Ironically, none of that ritual should apply in the Southern Hemisphere, where they are sliding away from the light and into a cold, bleak winter. April Fool’s Day doesn’t reflect their history, culture, or even their agricultural cycles. But it persists nonetheless, allowing them to play the fool and feel what so many of their social and political leaders feel every day of the year.

Decoding… > Roland Emmerich’s new film 10 000 BC has the critics hurling derision at it, but some science geeks are using it to show people the mysteries of the Pleistocene Age. Paleoblog is a website in which fans rub shoulders with academic experts as they celebrate and ridicule all aspects of the period. What did a dinosaur eat? When did modern birds arise? What do you call an 80- million-year-old crocodile? Learn more by visiting www.paleoblog.blogspot.com.

Rousing… > In the style of Bill Bryson’s irreverent, but meticulous observations, comes The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs. This New Yorker spent a year trying to follow the Bible’s instructions . It’s not an anti-religious book, just a quirky, observed study of what the modern urban-dweller has to ponder if he literally wants to live by “God’s word”. It’s an interesting read that’s both funny and provocative. Go to www.exclusivebooks.co.za.

Flirting… > Tired of perfumes marketed by pop bimbos? Is anyone still buying Britney’s fragrance? For the European spring season, and to celebrate its 70th anniversary, Lancôme has reissued a perfume that made its debut in 1950. Magie (French for Magic), was overshadowed in the ’60s by a flood of fragrances endorsed by stars. Now they are reviving the classics. Get it at www.fragrantica.com/perfume/Lancome/Magie.

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