April Fools, the day of mischief making and tom foolery is a curious custom with uncertain origins. Theories abound about where it came from or what it is for. A popular idea is that it is a French custom that marks the a series of calendar reforms in 16th century France. Apparently in 1564, the French changed their calendar, moving the beginning of the year form the end of March to 1 January as we have it now. The gist of it all is that those people who stuck to the old calendar and continued to celebrate the new year in March/April were the subject of pranks and ridicule. People would paste paper fish to their backs and refer to them as Poisson dÁvril (April Fish). This remains the French term for the day, or so it goes. As with all good stories, this is just one version with others dating back into the 1300s. What does appear to be the case is it was some European festival event, however mysterious the origins.
Anyway, by the 1700s April Fools and pranks had become a part of the culture in both Europe and England and so when Europeans came on to Australia they brought the custom along. The earliest reference in Australia (at least that I could find) appears to be from the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Sydney’s first newspaper, from 1 April 1826. Although not talking directly of Australian experiences, the writer lists a series of pranks and practical jokes played on family, friends and customers over the day, such as putting alabaster in the sugar, taunting the local chimney sweep boy and other such hilarity. Like so many things, I guess you had to be there.
In more recent times, the April Fool has often been part of a larger marketing campaign. Elaborate gags have often fooled half the city. In Sydney a number stand out. This week Google Australia announced they had released a football that included a GPS so it could be programmed where it would go. Last year (2008), Google’s Sydney office announced a new search engine called ‘gDay Mate’, which enabled the internet to be searched for content before it was even created! The search could predict what the internet would look like in 24 hours, including share prices, sports results and news events.
Sydney’s obsession with food has also been targeted. In 2004 the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that Yum Cha Carts pushers at Chinese restaurants were to be subjected to licence testing, with learners having to wear L plates on the cart. The test was in response to increasing numbers of dumpling accidents, where steaming hot dumplings were flying into people’s laps from dangerous trolley drivers. In 2003, SMH Good Living reviewed a restaurant deliciously named ‘Species’, where animals listed on the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered list were served up. Mmmm, yellow spotted tree frog kebabs, my favourite.
But the king of pranks in Sydney is Dick Smith, adventurer, electronics guy, magazine man. In 1978 a barge appeared being towed into the harbour with an iceberg attached to it. Dick Smith had set the gag up in advance, telling anyone who would listen that he intended to bring the iceberg from Antarctica to shave down into ice cubes to sell for 10c each and call them ‘Dicksicles’. The night before April Fools, he took the barge out to sea, where it was draped with a huge sheet and then covered in fire fighting foam and shaving cream. As it was towed through the harbour he had his staff call the radio stations proclaimed that there was an iceberg in the harbour. People flocked to see it, crowding the foreshore. Only when it started to rain (by which time the berg was close to the Opera House) was the gag revealed. The shaving cream and foam dissolved. But the real trick was the publicity; everybody was talking about Dick Smith and his electronic store.
So who knows where it all came from, but its’ been around a good while and it’s nice to know that even in an increasingly serious world, we still manage to keep at least one day a year dedicated to the gag.