April Fools and the Evolution of the Hoax

1957 - BBC "Swiss Spaghetti Harvest" hoax
1957 – BBC “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest” hoax

In my earlier years, I was a big fan of April Fools. The time and care and attention to detail that some people put into crafting and executing their sometimes enormously elaborate practical jokes were fascinating to me. Sort of like those people who go totally insane decorating their house for Christmas and create a temporary winter wonderland at great expense and effort. People will go to all kinds of trouble trying to make themselves or others laugh. Joviality is a great tool in an often-stressful world.

Not to mention that there is something admirable in a really cleverly executed practical joke. Artistically, it must be perfect. Absolutely unbelievable concepts must be treated with deadpan acceptance. Topically, it must both confound and then eventually amuse the intended audience. A well-executed prank is indicative of a highly developed wit.

One of the most famous April Fools’ pranks of all time is the 1957 Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax. It was a three-minute segment on the BBC current-affairs program called Panorama, and showed a family in Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from their orchard of spaghetti trees. It was so well done and so convincing that the BBC was inundated with viewer requests for more information as to where they could get their own spaghetti tree, to which the BBC purportedly told them, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

No one is sure where April Fools’ Day really originated. It’s possible, like many holidays or myth-driven events, that the origin is legion and developed independently in many different locations at many different times, often due to different humans having similar ideas inspired by similar aspects of the world they lived in.

One of my favourite (and I suspect, incorrect) explanations for April Fools’ Day is the one that supposes its origin is tied up in the celebration of the New Year in January. Apparently, in many European towns in the Middle Ages, the New Year was celebrated on March 25th, with week-long festivities that ended on April 1st. However, by that time it had become more the norm to celebrate the New Year on January 1st, as western culture still does today. So the term “April Fool” therefore was how the January New Year’s people mocked those who celebrated the New Year the old way. Which is particularly amusing, because celebrating the New Year at the time of the Spring Equinox makes a million times more sense than celebrating it in January.

And that is the sort of world we live in, isn’t it? For as long as people have interacted with one another, some have judged and made fun of each other with both spontaneous and ritualized mockery. Making another person look or feel stupid seems to empower some other people. And, like the New Year explanation, the mockery is often badly placed. However, it’s a perfect anecdote to help explain the way we approach April 1st in today’s world, rather than the more likely correct origin being with the Greeks and Romans and celebrations of intellectuality and comedy.

April Fools’ Day is one thing if it is, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a clever attempt to make people laugh and slough off some of the seriousness and stress of their daily lives. However, if it exists only to showcase that less admirable, less attractive side of humanity, to make some people feel good because they went out of their way to make someone else feel bad, then it is not so great.

In today’s online world, April Fools’ Day may as well be renamed, “Trolls on Overdrive Day,” or, “Idiot Click-bait Day,” or this year, “Wednesday.” Over the past few years, every day is April Fools’ Day online. Information has gotten so stripped down, research and references abandoned, key facts ignored or blindly accepted, that half of the content most of us see online is a hoax. And not a, “haha, I made you laugh,” sort of hoax, but a complete and utter intentional lie meant to push some sort of agenda, or at the least, get hits on a website and make money. I can’t be more serious when I say that it’s gotten to the point where no online information should be digested or shared without first consulting Snopes.com.

The Internet, as it has evolved, seems to have warped the idea of a hoax or prank into something much more sinister. I say “sinister” because it comes across as a sort of evil for the sake of evil, perpetrated by an army of intellectual swindlers. Like making up a story about a missing child, an abused woman, someone suffering from a disease, etc., and then laughing hysterically that people “fell for it.” Like so-called “satire sites” that have clearly never looked up the definition of “satire” and are nothing but misinformation sites spreading lies and loving it that people believe them. Or worse, sites that aren’t even trying to be satirical, just outright lying, like the “Tea Party News Network” that issued a “breaking story” about the pilot in the Germanwings crash having recently converted to Islam: which was an unsubstantiated, blatant mistruth.

Traditions like April Fools’ Day only make sense if the rest of the year is spent being relatively honest and hard working. It only makes sense if the pranks serve to impress those they fool; if your victim cannot laugh and say, “Oh, you got me good!” then you should not feel terribly proud of yourself.

– R.K. Finch