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Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be!

05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Judging by the universality of Festivals of Fools, people throughout time and culture seem to have regarded themselves as sufficiently ridiculous as to require some serious comeuppance. These special Fool Days are dedicated to a ritualized recognition of our all-too-human folly. On Days of the Fool there are no intermediary clowns. Everybody gets to play the fool.

Within this ceremonial context, we can act out an upside-down idiot reality with absolute impunity. We are free to tease and taunt, safely flaunt our fatuous fate. This comic relief, this unrestrained retreat from seriousness, serves as a safety valve for society. It allows for the cathartic release of emotion, tension, anxiety and the diffusion of disappointments and dangerous resentments.

Archaic definitions for fool include "imbecile, idiot, mentally defective, silly, stupid devoid of wisdom." "Fool" is from the Latin, follis, which means, "bellows, ball filled with air." As in, wind bag. Airhead. "Buffoon" is related to the Italian, buffare, "to puff." There is an airy quality implied in the language that describes a fool -- an incredible lightness of movement, of the moment, of being. A new way of seeing, which dissolves the solidity of the so-called real world. There is a Yiddish proverb that says, "The complete fool is half prophet."

In Scotland, November 8 is kept as Dunce Day. This Fool's Day was named after Duns Scotus, a ninth century scholar who created a cone-shaped hat to energize the brain of his foolish students. The first Tuesday in May is the Fool's Fair in Wales. Awa Odori, A Fool Dance is staged annually in Japan, while the Russians celebrate the Day of St. Basil the Fool of Moscow.

Fashing, or Fastnacht, is a raucous two-day Feast of Fools that precedes the pre-Lenten carnival in Austria. Purim, the Jewish Feast of Esther, is celebrated with an atmosphere of exuberance, a joyous, boisterous mocking of tradition and decorum, when it is customary, on this one day only, to drink to giddy excess.

The Hindu holiday of fools is Holi, celebrated as a high-spirited fire festival, which proclaims the death of winter and the onset of spring fever. For five days there is utter relaxation of the accepted rules of behavior. Lewdness prevails. People spray each other in the streets with powdered color pigments. There is a ribald shift in the normal relations among the castes and between the sexes, which often degenerates into mudslinging and public beatings of men by women.

In Spain and Latin America, the Day of the Fool is December 28, the Catholic commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by the biblical King Herod. The pranks and tricks played on this day are called inocentadas, the pun of which lays in the fact that inocente means "foolish, naive" as well as "blameless, innocent." Newspapers commonly participate in the spirit by printing weird "news" items and retouched trick photos.

The rest of Europe and North America celebrate the Fool on April 1st. So why April Fools' Day? Because April weather is so capricious? Because in April we are like a kindergarten class of hyperactive puppies exploding out of winter into recess? Or, as they say in Indiana, "April is the cruelest month?" Holi and Purim are celebrated near the Spring Equinox, as were the Roman holiday Hilaria and the vernal festival for the Celtic God of Mirth.

Perhaps these spring high jinx were the true precedents, but the official story goes like this: Until the Middle Ages, New Year was celebrated in Europe beginning on March 25, the approximate Vernal Equinox and lasting eight days until April 1 when festivities culminated in a day of visiting and gift exchange. Then in 1582 the new Gregorian calendar was adopted and New Year's Day was suddenly changed and officially established as January 1. Those folks who forgot the change or who insisted on maintaining the old traditions were called April Fools. They were gifted with joke presents and sent on fool's errands.

In Scotland, April 1 is known as Huntigowok. In Fife, a peninsula north of Edinburgh, the foolishness continues on April, 2, Taily Day, when the fun is limited to the immediate area of the backside. An entire day is dedicated to buttocks jokes and "kick me" signs. In France, the Fools Festival is Poisson d'Avril, April Fish. Is this a reference to the sun's leaving the constellation Pisces? Because April fish are easy to catch? Or, perhaps, a symbol of the meatless Lenten month? Here, too, people concentrate on each other's ass ends. The idea of the day is to surreptitiously pin paper fish on the backsides of the unsuspecting. Unsigned joke cards decorated with fish are also exchanged.

April Fool's Day is only a minor observance anymore. A half-hearted holiday celebrated with a certain self-serious condescension. It has lost the raucous intensity of its original intention, and doesn't anymore speak to us in an authentic way. It has been noted that since the diminished participation in the Feast of Fools as a significant celebration, the divine rights of kings, the infallibility of the Church and the modern totalitarian state all rose and flourished.

Today, we silly so and so's who take ourselves so damn seriously, who are ridiculous in our false sense of power and security, who foolishly putter with the natural order, who dare to toy with the elements, who fool with the future, could stand to be whittled down to size. A little comical self-critique is most certainly called for. A good swift kick in the perspective is what we need. The stakes are enormous. The joker is wild. And we can no longer afford to play the fool.