Spaceship Lands, Crew Demands Cheese Spread (Guess What Day It Is?)

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When it comes to April Fool’s Day, Europe’s media are having the last laugh. Britain’s Daily Mail reported Saturday that British Prime Minister Tony Blair repainted the traditionally black front door of his Downing Street office “socialist red” to match his Labour party colours, while The Times ran a story about a new song-activated credit card security system called Chip ‘n’ Sing.

Neither is true, of course, but some two centuries after the tradition began, media outlets still are trying to convince the gullible of the outrageous and improbable in an unofficial yearly competition to dupe the naive and unsuspecting.

Some say April Fool’s Day started with the creation of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, which changed the starting date of the new year from April 1 – or April Fool’s Day – to Jan. 1; others point to Indian and Roman festivals that celebrated foolishness and tomfoolery long before the Gregorian calendar was ever created.

Another theory dates back to the 17th century, when British villagers would strap an effigy of the town’s fool to a horse and parade it through the village.

“The British really treasure their sense of humour and they have cultivated a sense of irony that, I think, has sort of become a national characteristic,” said Alex Boese, a California-based hoax expert who runs a Web site dedicated to pranks.

And it’s not just Britain. Sweden’s leading daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, scared thousands of bicyclists by claiming that Stockholm’s city government would impose speed limits on bicycles in the inner city – to 20 kilometres an hour.

A local edition of the Rome daily Il Messaggero reported that Return to Morality, a new association of residents in the central city of Aquila, had persuaded local officials to cover up monuments in the main square by dressing the naked men and women with clothes made of bronze.

The Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets turned the day into a contest, offering free subscriptions to callers who identified false stories.

Aliens demanding a spaceship crew hand over its cargo of cheese spread; A secret research institute where Kremlin candidates to succeed President Vladimir Putin undergo scientific testing; and plans for a parliament building where legislators’ offices would boast a bar, a balcony and a Jacuzzi, were among the Russian newspaper’s gags.

In Belgium, the VRT radio network said the regional government in Flanders was so concerned about the impact of the country’s infamously dull weather on the population that it had decided to hand out 10,000 “sun cheques” giving citizens free visits to sun beds.

The popular Belgrade daily Glas ran a page of mock news, including a report saying Serbia’s Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had decided to resign, citing “unbearable Western pressure for extradition of (war crimes suspect) Ratko Mladic.”

Britain prides itself on a long tradition of elaborate hoaxes.

In 1957, the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a segment on the public affairs program Panorama about the unusually strong spaghetti harvest that year in southern Switzerland.

Twenty years later, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published a seven-page special supplement honouring the 10th anniversary of the picturesque island of San Serriffe, its leader, General Pica, and its capital, Bodoni.

Few noticed that the details of the luxurious island destination were made up entirely of printing terminology.

“The impact of the seven-page survey was quite astonishing,” former Guardian editor and current columnist David McKie said in Saturday’s edition.

“The office all day was bedlam as people pestered the switchboard with requests for more information. Both travel agencies and airlines made official complaints to the editor, Peter Preston, about the disruption as customers simply refused to believe that the islands did not exist.”

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