Ah, the French. They've given us great literature, fine wine … and April Fools' Day.
Many anthropologists say April Fools' Day is a French tradition dating back to the 16th century, putting the day practical jokers run amok alongside berets, bidets and croissants as a French cultural contribution.
April Fools' history remains a bit murky. Ancient Romans, among others, may have played a hand in institutionalizing a holiday when open season is declared on the gullible. But there's no denying France's role in the highly questionable practice of honoring put-ons and lame jokes.
The implications of this reckless behavior is clear: If anyone's ever hung a "Kick Me" sign on your posterior or spiked your sugar bowl with salt, Paris is ultimately responsible — and they should pay.
If Congress deems it worthy to rechristen "French"-named food in their cafeteria, taking on the French for lame April Fools' Day jokes is even more reasonable. It's time for lawmakers to act, quickly and decisively, just as they did in taking the French out of their toast and fries.
Do we need to strip April Fools' Day from our calendars? That's extreme. I suggest a more modest proposal: Let's just give the French proper billing and send a message to gay Paree.
From now on, let April 1 be known as "Franco-Fools' Day."
History’s Fishy Gift
The French connection to April Fools' Day is no joke. It all started in 1564, when King Charles IX of France adopted the Gregorian calendar, thereby switching the New Year's Day to Jan. 1.
Up until then, Europe used the Julian calendar and held New Year's celebrations around the spring equinox, on dates ranging from March 21 to April 1.
But news of King Charles' edict spread rather slowly — especially in small towns. And, as always, the French held tight to their old traditions and defiantly celebrated New Year's on the old date.
The result: calendar chaos. Suddenly, that old excuse, "I'll pay you next year," took on even less significance.
Parisians grew frustrated and mocked these backward bumpkins as Poisson d'Avril, or "April Fish". This led to expressions of sarcasm, then gag gifts, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It's still a favorite prank among French kids is to tape a paper fish to the backside of an unsuspecting rube. Fooliganism Spreads to America
England waited until the 18th century to adopt the "Catholic" calendar, and when it did, our Anglo brothers also embraced April Fools' Day. Thus, French fooliganism spread to the American colonies, Scotland and much of the world, faster than the speed of a rubber chicken.
A cultural note: If you're the butt of a British practical joke, you're a "noodle." In Scotland, you're a "gowk," or cuckoo bird.
Now, in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, there's a designated day for foolish pleasures. South Korea was forced to step up surveillance operations after its national fire service received some 3,061 hoax calls on April Fools' Day two years ago, according to Agence France-Press.
Even after issuing stern warnings, South Korean officials reported more than 1,500 hoax calls the next April 1, several times the number that's registered on any other day.
April Fools' Day lore is rife worldwide with infamous stunts, some that backfire badly. To name a few:
• In 1989, a riot broke out in Sri Lanka when a local newspaper, as a joke, reported on a bogus numbers game. Some 2,000 angry readers showed up to collect prizes and grew hostile when they were told, "April Fools!"
• In 1957, BBC TV reported "a record spaghetti harvest" in the Italian Alps. In the video, farmers snipped away at bounteous "spaghetti trees" with extra-large scissors. With no hint of humor, the reporter credited the bumper crop to new methods of controlling the ravenous spaghetti weevil. The BBC's switchboard was jammed with hundreds of people seeking to farm spaghetti.
• In 1970, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released a statement saying they were about to undergo side-by-side sex-change operations. The report failed to turn Yoko into a major recording artist, and Lennon died before releasing "Nowhere Woman."
• In 1989, Seattle's KING-TV reported that the city's famed Space Needle had fallen, crushing nearby buildings. That prompted frantic calls to the police, who weren't laughing at that joke.
• In 1990, a Norwegian man telephoned an Oslo jail, identified himself as a policeman, and told guards to release two of his friends as an April Fools' joke. The guards fell for it. "The idea was that they would be told of the release, but that it wouldn't happen," the prankster told The Associated Press. "I didn't think it was that easy to get people out of jail."
• In 1996, Taco Bell announced the purchase of the Liberty Bell, which would be renamed the "Taco Liberty Bell." Proceeds from the sale would be used to pay down the national debt. The National Historic Park in Philadelphia, where the Liberty Bell is housed, reported thousands of people calling to protest.
• In 1998, shock jocks Opie and Anthony were fired from a Boston radio station for announcing that Mayor Tom Menino had been killed in a Florida car crash. Hizzoner didn't think the joke was funny either.
Can American Lawyers Turn French Fools Into Court Jesters?
Some of these pranks have clearly resulted in physical damages and monetary loss. As long as we're holding the French responsible for April Fools' Day, can a class-action law suit be that far off? We'll have to see if these fools like being court jesters.
I'm not sure what punitive damages the mental anguish of a hot foot can generate, but there are a lot of unemployed lawyers right now who hang out in novelty stores and know the liability associated with whoopee cushions.
If you don't want to hire a lawyer, you can represent yourself and be guaranteed to have a fool for a client.
Of course, France is likely to call in historians who will say the history of April Fools' Day is a bit murky. But how then will France explain its ongoing obsession with Jerry Lewis — the King of Fools?
Only two weeks ago, a Los Angeles disc jockey from KROQ reportedly managed to get French President Jacques Chirac on the phone — simply by saying he was the original Nutty Professor. The two discussed foreign policy and Chirac invited the disc jockey to visit him in Paris.
Lewis isn't laughing. His lawyer is threatening legal action over this funny business.
We All Scream for Nacho Ice Cream
The fear of a world without April Fools' Day might frighten off the less litigious among us. But we can go on playing practical jokes on April 1. That's not hypocritical. Do you have to give up eating just because you're suing McDonald's for making you fat?
Indeed, April Fools' follies will continue this year, even through these tense times. In Fredonia, N.Y., they'll celebrate with giant scoops of Nacho Cheese- and Succotash-flavored ice cream.
Last year, David Aldrich served 48 gallons of these frozen dairy novelty flavors.
"No matter how outrageous the flavor, people come in to try it, sometimes just to gross themselves out," said Aldrich, whose father started the 20-year tradition.
If you don't like nacho cheese ice cream, just give it to your sister and tell her it's orange sherbet. You'll have to explain the corn chip cone.
If she gets mad, don't worry. Blame France.
To which, she might say, "Stop being so French."
Happy Franco-Fools' Day. Just keep these wise words from Mark Twain in mind: "The First of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year."
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.