From Chaucer to the Spaghetti Tree: How We Still Hunt the Fool

Telling someone that their shoelaces are undone when they’re wearing slip-ons is a bit old hat, but it never fails. Ah yes, today is the prankster’s day: April Fools’ Day.

A strange celebration that is neither uniquely English nor modern. Versions of Fools Day are found in Sweden, Canada, Iran and Switzerland, as well as other countries, although not all are celebrated on 1 April. Spain has their prank day on 28 December. But the jokes – slapstick, silly or other types of practcal japes – are on an equal footing. News reports on television or newspapers are the best, simply because there are so many gullible sorts who fall for them. The real ‘April Fools’.

One of the most famous, and best of these, was the story run by the BBC in 1957. A serious documentary programme called Panorama, ran a three minutes piece about the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. There was film footage of a family collecting spaghetti from trees and explaining how the mild winter had helped make the harvest a bumper one. They also discussed the pests of the spaghetti tree, the spaghetti weevil. The programme had the air of authority and authenticity by having a well respected narrator, Richard Dimbleby, provide the voice over.

I was not born in 1957, but I wish I had seen that first-hand. Hundreds of people rang the BBC to ask where they could get spaghetti trees from. Can you imagine that: your own spaghetti tree in the garden. Genius.

The roots of April Fools’ Day are spread deep and wide. Chaucer mentioned thirty-two days after March in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales where a cock is tricked by a fox. This has often been argued that he means 1 April, although not all historians agree. However, April Fools existed long before Chaucer in the Middle Ages.

The Medieval Feast of Fools was held on 28 December, the same date that the Spanish keep nowadays, and the Romans had a similar festival on 25 March called Hilaria. As I mentioned in my blog post Why January 1 is a Confusing New Year (1 January 2013), new year has been celebrated on different dates. It has been suggested that those who saw in the new year on 1 January mocked those ‘fools’ who celebrated on other dates, notably the week long festival that began on 25 March. At least it didn’t end up as a brawl.

And so today I am lucky that I am not in school teaching because the ‘Your shoelaces are undone’ really is wearing thin now. Then again, I could teach the history of the spaghetti tree. Maybe next year.

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