Alex Boese, author of <i>The Museum of Hoaxes</i>.
If you're ever invited to a costume party around this time of year, think twice about dressing up.
Raijphinai Harris wishes he had.
"Turned out it was a formal party," the 20-year-old Toledoan said.
Mr. Harris was on the receiving end of an April Fool's prank. But it could have been worse.
"I dressed up like a ninja, so luckily nobody recognized me," he said.
It's been prank or be pranked on April 1, so consider this a warning.
An old tradition that popular theory dates back hundreds of years, April Fool's is evidence that, for at least one day a year, we don't have to take ourselves too seriously. And thanks to modern technology, it's easier than ever.
"I think in the past 15 years, there's kind of been a resurgence in April Fool's Day, in large measure because of the Internet" where hoaxes can spread like wildfire, said Alex Boese, a sort of professor of pranks who authored the book The Museum of Hoaxes (Plume, 2002).
A former graduate student fascinated by the hoaxes of P.T. Barnum, he now spends his time on more productive tasks - like ranking the top 100 April Fool's Day jokes.
Topping his list was a 1957 broadcast by a respected British news program announcing that due to a mild winter and the near elimination of the spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. It even showed footage of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees. In response to calls from viewers wanting to grow their own spaghetti trees, officials replied they should "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."
Others that made his top 10 include Burger King announcing the introduction of a "Left-Handed Whopper" in 1998 and reports that same year in the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter that the Alabama state legislature was changing the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the "Biblical value" of 3.0.
"The ones that I think are brilliant are the ones that when you first hear them are believable," Mr. Boese said. "It's that trick of making it just believable enough but completely ridiculous in hindsight."
One theory is that the holiday traces its roots to a calendar reform in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar to replace the old Julian Calendar. It called for New Year's Day to be celebrated Jan. 1 rather than a celebration that lasted from March 25 to April 1. Those who forgot, didn't hear of, or didn't accept the new date system were labeled fools and sometimes were made the butt of practical jokes.
Mr. Boese prefers the connection to ancient spring festivals celebrating the return of the sun and warm weather that often incorporated tricks.
Whatever the reason, the holiday has been embraced the world over, particularly by the British, who have published fake news accounts of Big Ben going digital and "FatSox" that could actually suck body fat out of sweating feet.
"The British seem to do it very well because they have a real sense of irony," Mr. Boese said.
Don't worry, though, the spirit of trickery is alive and well here too.
Last year, Dundee, Mich.'s weekly community newspaper, The Independent, stunned some readers when it reported in a special section on April 1 that the village council decided to build a tunnel under the River Raisin right next to the existing bridge and charge tolls.
"Some people read it, but they just didn't realize it was a joke. One lady sent me an e-mail saying she had figured it out and it was going to cost her $600 a year to take her kid back and forth to school," said editor and co-publisher Tanya Whitaker.
The same issue indicated that a local school would replace the football program with poetry slams and painting competitions.
"It's really silly," Ms. Whitaker said. "I'm kind of disappointed that our paper doesn't come out on April Fool's more often."
For Sue Kromenacker Karp, who turns 71 tomorrow, being born on April 1 was the source of an everlasting prank.
"The biggest thing is that nobody every believed me on my birthday," she said. "I'd go into grade school and say it's my birthday and everybody would say, 'April Fool!' "
Andy Burt, 28, has witnessed pranks of the more traditional and personal variety, like the time in college when his roommate's girlfriend hid all his stuff - his bedsheets, stereo, clothes, everything.
At least it wasn't as bad as the time (this one not on April Fool's) that his own girlfriend pasted his car windows with peanut butter.
"She thought it would be funny," he said.
He didn't. Let's just say that relationship didn't work out.
It can be a fine line between a funny joke and a troubling one. April Fool's hoaxes gone awry - fake disaster warnings, for example - can go too far, Mr. Boese said.
"That's not funny. It's just stupid because people are seriously threatened by it," he said.
Holly Horoszewski, 30, has seen friends and co-workers pull off some doozies that have led to tears.
"One year, my boss fired somebody as a joke," she said.
And back in high school, a sophomore friend told her boyfriend that she was pregnant.
"By seventh period he was like in tears," Ms. Horoszewski said. "He was crying, literally crying, because he didn't know what he was going to do, what he was going to tell his parents."
At the end of the day, the girl passed him a note that said simply, "April Fools."
For some, April Fool's Day comes early. Ryan Huster, 13, already became the recipient of an prank when some of his friends lured him into a garage with promises of brownies and then locked him in there for about an hour.
"I was a little angry," young Huster said.
But at least he didn't go hungry; the brownies were no joke.
"I ate a couple," he said.
Contact Ryan E. Smith at:
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