Hazel Mollison: April Fools - what's it all about?

From floating monsters to the annual Swiss spaghetti harvest, there are no shortage of bizarre April Fools' Day stunts. But, asks Hazel Mollison, where exactly does this traditional day of pranks come from?

THE discovery of the mysterious "monster" carcass sparked worldwide media attention and was one of the more unusual jobs for Scottish police. They stopped a team of zoologists who had removed the 15ft sea creature from Loch Ness, which was soon to be dubbed "Son of Nessie".

Police cited a little known Act of Parliament prohibiting removal of any unidentified objects from the loch, but when the body was examined by Edinburgh scientists in 1972, they revealed it as one of the most successful April Fools' pranks ever.

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John Shields, an education officer at Yorkshire's Flamingo Park Zoo, confessed he had dumped the dead elephant seal in the loch after shaving off its whiskers and padding its cheeks with stones. He apologised that his joke on work mates had got "out of hand".

Many of us will remember scratching our heads when reading about Edinburgh City Council's plan to ban red cars from the city on Saturdays, or take the Scott Monument apart stone by stone for cleaning. No doubt a few readers were also left fuming after reading that European bureaucrats had decided to rename Blackburn "Burndubh" out of misguided "political correctness".

One of the most famous April Fools ever was Richard Dimbleby's deadpan Panorama documentary on the Swiss spaghetti harvest, broadcast by the BBC in 1957.

The tradition stretches back centuries but there is no clear agreement on its origins. The Romans used to hold their feast of Hilaria in late March, which involved playing pranks and tricks. In many cases, a common soldier or servant was named "Lord of Misrule" and presided over the "Feast of Fools".

The modern tradition probably began after Pope Gregory VIII introduced his new calendar in 1582 across Catholic Europe. This moved New Year's Day from 1 April to 1 January, meaning anyone who celebrated the old date was an "April fool".

The tradition came to Britain when we finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. One of the earliest recorded pranks was when dozens of people received an invitation to watch the "annual ceremony of Washing the White Lions" at the Tower of London in 1860.

According to Scottish tradition, celebrations last 48 hours.

The second day was known as "Taily Day", as pranks were devoted to the rear of the victim, perhaps leading to the modern "Kick Me" sign phenomenon. In England, tricks are only permissible before midday today.

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Lindsay Corr, marketing officer at the Scottish Storytelling Centre – which is hosting an evening of comedy and storytelling tonight to mark the occasion – said: "We all love an excuse to forget the dreariness of everyday life and relapse into childhood. My favourite April Fool is the story of a groom who climbed up Arthur's Seat to have a 'romantic picnic' with his betrothed, only to be attacked by his male friends who took off all his clothes and left him stranded!"

In 2003, Rangers manager Alex McLeish announced he had signed Yardis Alpolfo, a 17-year-old Turkish player, in a 5 million deal. Many news organisations, including Reuters, reported the story before realising the player's name was an anagram of "April Fools' Day".

Other imaginative hoaxes include an Isle of Mull resident who captured a seagull in 2002 and painted it in bright colours. He then released it and spread the rumour that an exotic parrot had been spotted around the town.

The year before, around 50 film fans were left red-faced when a star-studded film premiere at the Capital's Dominion cinema turned out to be an elaborate prank organised by a local tour guide.

Fans attending The Grave Robbers were left disappointed when the only Ewan McGregor in attendance turned out to be a plumber from Fife.

April Fools jokes don't always go down well with the victims – or the unwitting middlemen. Edinburgh Zoo is bracing itself for a deluge of prank calls today.

A zoo spokeswoman said: "Many seem to be texted by friends to say their battery is running low and could they call them on the following number and, of course, they get Edinburgh Zoo! We probably had about 120 calls last year."

City council bosses failed to see the funny side when Edinburgh Dungeon slapped around 200 fake tickets on parked cars in 2008, while another one that didn't raise any laughs was the introduction of the community charge – or poll tax – in Scotland on April Fools' Day 1989, a year ahead of the rest of the UK. This wasn't a joke, although many wished it was.


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THEY may have been ruthless dictators, but that didn't stop Saddam Hussein and his sons trying to give Iraqis a good chuckle every April Fools' Day. In 1998, the Babil newspaper, owned by Hussein's son Uday, informed readers that President Clinton had decided to lift sanctions against Iraq, only to admit later that it was just joking. A year later Uday announced that the monthly food rations would be supplemented to include bananas, Pepsi and chocolate. Running out of material, they repeated the same "jokes" in 2000 and 2001.

• DJs at an Oregon radio station announced in April 1999 that a dam had burst, threatening downstream areas with massive flooding. This hoax warning came just a year after an actual disaster, meaning terrified homeowners prepared to flee. They were less than amused when they heard later it was only a joke.

• Glenn Howlett, who worked at London City Hall, rushed back from his holiday when he received a memo saying an important report was due in early. But the stress of the new deadline led to him experiencing heart palpitations and collapsing at work. He eventually filed for early retirement and sued his former employer for damages.

• Thousands of motorists were shocked to see a glowing flying saucer descending on the highway outside London on 31 March, 1989. One policeman fled after being approached by a small, silver-suited "alien". It turned out to be a prank by Virgin boss Richard Branson, who had created a hot-air balloon covered with lights. But the joke was on him, since it "escaped" a day early and was blown off course.