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Our Year of the Holiday

The Holidays:

April: April Fool's Day, Palm Sunday, Passover, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter
May: May Day, Mother's Day, Memorial Day
June: Father's Day
July: July 4th



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July 4th is my favorite holiday. No stress, no major rituals to endure, no presents to buy, no cards, no flowers, just fireworks and outdoor fun. BBQs, snacks, free fireworks and Popsicles. You’re not even obliged to get together a dysfunctional family. One of the biggest July 4th celebrations I’ve ever witnessed was the VP Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Millions of people attend this fair all packed together in the thick Missouri humidity, eating funnel cakes, watching air shows, and free concerts under the Gateway Arch (I saw Dolly Parton one year, Aretha Franklin the next). At the end of the day, they put on a big finale of fireworks over the Mississippi. The best part of the day is participating in the slow migration of a million people going home, city blocks packed with people.

Years ago, a bunch of colonial punks who called themselves the Continental Congress composed the Declaration of Independence (actually they had Thomas Jefferson do it; no one else wanted the job) and they officially signed it on July 4, 1776. Then they went to war with the British. Soon-to-be Americans started celebrating right away (go figure). They blew cannons, fired muskets, tore down statues of King George, and drank toasts (it was tradition to drink one toast for each state in the union).

Today we decorate everything red, white and blue (including food). We finish off BBQ with Popsicles and apple pie. Congress declared July 4 a federal holiday in 1941. Since then you can hear the sounds of illegal firecrackers snapping from coast to coast.
-- m. ladd

The only time I've known my father to break the law is the 4th of July. We would make the annual 15 mile drive from St. Louis, where fireworks were illegal, to Alton, Illinois, where fireworks were big business (once a year). Under one of the temporary tents, we would fill a handbasket with sparklers, snakes, snaps, roman candles, black cats, and a big fountain for a grand finale. Every year I'd ask for bottle rockets and be denied as they were too dangerous ("You'll shoot your eye out."). It always seemed to take forever to get dark. When it finally did, we'd bring out the lawn chairs, suck on popsicles and watch my dad run the display. The dog would be inside, hiding under a bed. Every year there would be some duds, often the grand finale, and Dad would curse the chinamen under his breath. Snakes were my favorite, although I can't for the life of me figure out what was so thrilling about watching a little black capsule morph into a big black "snake" of ash. These snakes would blow throughout the neighborhood like tumbleweeds. I also liked to bend the end of the sparkler and twirl it around in a circle of flame. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Actually, it does get better--there's the VP Fair, now called Fair St. Louis. The 4th of July has not been the same for me since I've left St. Louis. Nobody does the 4th like Fair St. Louis. Harrier jets screaming over the Arch. Drinking 40 oz hurricanes and then going on the Rock-o-Planes or the Salt-N-Pepper Shakers to heighten the buzz. Fireworks displays to the tune of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" and Neil Diamond's "America." Roasted corn, bratwursts, and Budweiser. These are the big name musical acts I've seen at the Fair for free: Tom Jones, Chicago, ELO, Beach Boys (with special guest star John Stamos!), the aforementioned Aretha, and Tammy Wynette. Good times.

This year, I'm in Sydney and I had to go to work on the 4th. It felt so wrong. I did go to the Hard Rock Cafe and partake of the Independence Day special (ribs and Bud), but I would have rather been sweatin' to the oldies under the Arch. God Bless the USA. And God bless the chinamen for inventing those fireworks.

The Declaration of Independence
The Fourth of July
What we do now
Fair St. Louis (the bacchanalia formerly known as the VP Fair)


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Father’s Day is similar to Mother’s Day in that you have to buy your parents love and affection just like they used to buy yours on Christmas. But unlike the obligations of Mother’s Day, Fathers are much more laid back about their holiday. They’re happy enough with a tie or a big cookie that says “Happy Father’s Day.” They seem to take the attitude that they’re lucky they even get a holiday at all.

And they have a point. In 1910, a married daughter in Spokane, Washington, sat through a Mother’s Day sermon and thought of her Father who had single-handedly raised her and her five brothers. She picked June 5, her father’s birthday, to be the first Father’s Day, but the day was pushed back to June 19 so that ministers could have more time to prepare their sermons. Calvin Coolidge recommended to the states a celebration of Father’s Day but the day didn’t go live nationally until 1972-- 62 years after it was first proposed. It was finally established by Richard Nixon, who probably just wanted a new tie. -- m. ladd

Homespun Dad’s Day Page
Step-fathers Page


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Memorial Day is another one of those holidays that doesn’t get enough respect. Those who have lost a loved one in a war take this day very seriously, bringing flowers to the cemetery and remembering the sacrifices of the dead. The rest of us just look forward to a day off of work, Memorial Day being one of the basic six American holidays that most employers actually observe.

But shame on us. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day to think about all those who sacrificed their lives so that we could get a paid day off to remember them. If you need some better idea of just what they sacrificed, go see The Patriot, or rent Glory, The Deer Hunter, or Saving Private Ryan.

It’s not clear where the real origins of Memorial Day began, but it’s believed to have been started by Southern women remembering the dead soldiers of the Confederate Army. Groups of women stared decorating graves before the end of The Civil War. The holiday was made official by Congress in 1968 and is now celebrated on the last Monday in May. -- m. ladd

How to observe Memorial Day (we seem to need help on this one)



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Mother’s Day has become just another consumer’s day of obligation. It’s all about flowers, a cake, and the mandatory greeting card (imagine Mother’s Day without a card!) Taking Mom out to dinner is always fun, but finding creative ways to thank Mom kind of petered out in grade school when there was quite a high premium on Mother’s Day crafts and ingenious thanking-mechanisms: the pencil holders, the pottery ash-trays, the shadow portrait, the macaroni arrangement on a plaque, the hand-in-gold-spray-painted plaster, the coupon book of chores (one for washing dishes, one for vacuuming). I have given them all. And it’s not that my Mom is demanding of much. She’d be happy with just a little respect one day out of the year. Hmmm.

Mother’s Day was the brainchild of Anna Jarvis, a school teacher near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who felt guilty when her mother died for all the things she hadn’t done for her. So Anna decided to start celebrating her mother and all mothers on Sunday, May 2, the anniversary of her mother’s death. The first celebration began in Anna’s local church. Every mother in the congregation was given a carnation (Anna’s mother’s favorite flower). Anna took up the national crusade and won immediate public support but the classifacation of Mother's Day as a legitimate holiday stalled in the Senate. Anna then began a one-person letter writing campaign to newspapers, politicians, ministers, and business leaders. Eventually, any opposition was seen as un-American and the holiday was given life on May 8, 1914, by President Woodrow Wilson.

But Anna died childless and bitter. Consumerism took hold of Mother’s Day right from the start. Anna saw this exploitation of the day by businesses as a mockery to the religious observance she once had in mind. She sued companies who tried to profit from Mother’s Day and lost all her money and the family home in the process. She became a recluse and ended up in a sanitarium.

Today, over 10 million bouquets of flowers and 50 million greeting cards are sold for Mothers Day. Don’t let your mother die a bitter recluse in a sanitarium. Forget flowers and cards. Give your mother a coupon book of chores. Those always go over well.
-- m.ladd

Salon essays about Mother's Day and Mothers


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I’ve always thought this was a weird, mysterious day, some throw-back to repressed-Puritans…and pagans running around a “pole” with ribbons for “fun” or “merriment” since no one was really having very much fun back in the day. But there’s more to this day then is apparent since nobody ever celebrates May Day. We groan instead about a silly, useless holiday talking up our calendar space every year.

Many ancients in countries around the world, from Italy to Czechoslovakia to Switzerland, once celebrated the dawn of spring and fertility, both for agriculture and humans. The holiday is ripe with symbolism of sexuality, flowers, and sweetheart rituals. The may pole was overtly considered phallic and was decorated and danced around by lovers with ribbons until their love (the ribbons) became intertwined. A Queen of May was chosen to rule the crops in harvest. Many believe this to be one of the origins of modern beauty pageants.

Other countries are still having a gay old time each May Day but not Americans. We have the Puritans to thank for that. They put the kibosh on this day because they were a fun-less, cynical lot.

During the Middle Ages, May Day took on the cause of the common man when trade guilds started celebrating their patron saints the same day. Lords, Priests and people in authority became the butt of jokes during May Day festivities. As a result, the church soon outlawed the day but the trade guilds kept celebrating anyway, their ranks soon evolving into guilds, societies and eventually into unions. May Day turned into a full-fledged working-man’s holiday when national labor strikes were held on May 1, 1886 in the US and Canada in petition for the eight hour work day. During these strikes, Chicago police killed six strikers. The next day a bomb exploded in the middle of a crowd of police, killing eight. Who set off this bomb was never revealed, but eight trade unionists were arrested and accused of being agitators, found guilty in an Illinois court and executed by the State of Illinois. In 1889, the International Working Men’s Association in Paris declared May 1 an international working class holiday.

If nothing else, celebrate your 8-hour workday on May Day. Fourteen men died for that. -- m. ladd

May Day (there’s more to mayday than meets the eye)



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Easter pretty much rules. The only negative for me as a kid was having to get dressed up. I was the quintessential tomboy and my eyes are red in all the Easter pictures because I've been crying about being forced to wear not only a dress but also a BONNET! I'd get over it by the time I got to church because Mass is actually fun on Easter. The readings are upbeat and everyone is in a good mood. Plus we get to repeat our baptismal promises by asserting "I DO" to a number of statements--my favorite being "Do you reject Satan and all his empty promises?" After Mass, I'd eagerly pursue the eggs at the church Easter egg hunt. Then we'd go home and I'd have to find my Easter baskets in the house. Of course, mom would eat the ears off my chocolate bunny (had to be solid, not one of those cheap hollow ones). I didn't really care because I had those delectable Reeses' eggs, Peeps, Cadbury creme eggs, and jelly beans. In the Reagan era, I upgraded to Jelly Bellies. It was a prosperous time for us all.

Just like at Christmas time, it's easy to forget the reason for the season. Easter celebrates Jesus' resurrection from the dead. What this has to do with silly rabbits, I had no idea. So I consulted the trusty Catholic Encyclopedia which informed me that Easter eggs had a certain historical reason for being (eggs were forbidden during Lent and eaten in celebration on Easter) and that the bunny was said to have laid the eggs. The Encyclopedia then goes on to caution that the Easter Bunny is a PAGAN symbol. And to think my mom put me on the Easter Bunny's lap at the mall! --julie wiskirchen

A hilarious and educational page about Peeps

The Catholic Encylopedia's views on Easter.

Easter may be the most sacred of holy days for Christians, but in our house, it was primarily Easter Basket Day.  It's hard to argue against the merits of a secular Easter such as I experienced as a child.   I was forced to get dressed up and go to Church at Grandmas house (see picture below...and I don't look happy about it) but when we were at home, no such bad luck. We were not a church going family but we were very devout towards the sacred chocolate holidays. Easter was kind of it's own holiday of purgatory though. Not quite the candy hedonism of Halloween and not so present-intensive as Christmas. We got the ubiquitous chocolate bunny. That was all good and well. The stuffed-toy bunny. One year my brothers actually got two live bunnies from a family friend (my parents were furious but too animal friendly to dump the mean little rabbits off somewhere in the New Mexican desert so we built a rabbit hut and lived happily ever after). I had my own little purple stuffed bunny (see picture below) that I truly adored and was devastated when it was obliterated by our new family dog. Tough times. Cadbury eggs and peeps, despite my co-editors palette preferences, ended up as hardened rocks in my straw Easter basket (we had ones with the long high handles, with dangerous spikes of straw sticking out and splintering our sticky little fingers). Circus peanuts and the coconut cream eggs...more yuckitude! The chocolate money was always appreciated though and the stray jelly beans floating in the faux stringy green grass, what a bonus!

The real treat for me on Easter was coloring eggs...what chemistry fun dipping the eggs in the pungent Pads concoction (made with water and the plop of little colored pills). Real artistry was made by dipping one side of the egg in one bowl of one color and the other side of the egg in another.  Special effects, man!  We had no painting tools, rarely any stickers...and the stickers we did have wouldn't stick to the eggs because we stuck them on before the egg-coloring had dried!  

The next morning we'd race around the house trying to find all the eggs before the dog did. They were always behind furniture legs.  Pretty much a no-brainer. Once in a while my parents would forget where they hid all of them and we'd be smelling bad egg before you knew it. The eggs, once found, were then slaughtered for the delicacy of deviled eggs which my mom made with a lot of mustard and horse-radish.  I didn't get them this year.  And I'm pretty peeped-off about it.

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The Easter Bunny:  Anglo-Saxons worshiped the goddess Eastre, who's earthly symbol was the hare.  The Germans who settled in Pennsylvania brought the tradition over to America.  But the Puritans and Quakers would have none of it.   What a bunch of party-poopers!  Then, 100 years later after the Civil War, everyone was pretty depressed about the war carnage and general doom and the whole nation decided to come together and give each other stuffed bunnies to cheer things up a bit.   So Yankees,  Confederates.  Stop your fuedin!  Have a stuffed bunny!

The Easter Egg:  For many ancient peoples the egg symbolized birth and resurrection. And legend has it the guy who carted Christ's cross to the Calvary was an egg merchant and  when he returned to his egg farm all his eggs had miraculously turned a rainbow of colors. So when the Church began to celebrate Easter and the resurrection, they embraced the incredible edible egg, symbolically speaking.   People started to boil eggs with flowers, leaves or wood chips to color them.   The Faberge eggs are some famous Easter eggs commissioned by Czar Alexander III of Russia as gifts for his wife.  They are very swanky.  Kind of going overboard with the whole egg thing though.

Hot Cross Buns: supposedly an Easter tradition that I am totally clueless about.  It's a Saxon thing. --m. ladd

Another Easter Page



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On Good Friday we remember that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. What exactly is so "Good" about it? I've never understood that.

Good Friday lets the Catholic Church be morbid to the max. Extremists in Mexico and the Philippines actually crucify people, while most of us are content to just retrace the stations of the cross or watch Jesus of Nazareth. We get to sing the gloomy hymn "Were You There" with lyrics like "Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." My parish had a unique tradition. They had a wooden cross that was full of nail holes. Each parishioner was given a nail and we'd process up the aisle and stick our nail in the cross. Thus, we were reminded that we killed Christ. Then we'd have to listen to the Passion again (see Palm Sunday).

Protestants tend to accuse Catholics of focusing too much on the crucifixion of Christ and not enough on the resurrection. I would tend to agree with the Protestants. We Catholics are obsessed with the cross--we wear it around our neck everyday and today we actually kiss it (a tradition called veneration of the cross). We like to reflect on the gory details. One year my religion teacher was a nun who had done a lot of research on the historical crucifixion. She shared with us many gems of information beyond her opinion on the actual placement of the nails (a subject of continual debate). Did you know the whips that Jesus were scourged with had little barbs on the end of each strand that dug into his flesh? Did you know that when the soldiers stripped him of his garments, pieces of his skin came off too, since he was so bloody? Did you know that the thorns in the crown of thorns were 4-5 inches long and hammered into his head with such force that one went through his scalp and came out his eyelid? You didn't know? Well, I'm not sure how the nun knew that herself. Looking back on it, I think she just had S&M tendencies and enjoyed spoiling our lunch hour.

It almost always rains on Good Friday, usually in the afternoon (Jesus is said to have been on the cross from 12:00PM-3:00PM). The day is just an all-around bummer. --julie wiskirchen

A historical explanation of crucifixion

The Catholic Encylopedia's explanation of Good Friday.



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The Jewish holidays are a little more biblically complicated than the Christian ones.  A lot of similar ceremony going down (fast and feast), but much more rule-intensive.  For Passover, for instance, a family had to use special Passover dinner-ware (whereas Christians have one set for all their major hootenannies), the kitchen must be prepared in a special way, preparing vessels for Passover use.  Before Passover begins, one has to sell off all their Chametz (all food and drink made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt) to non-Jews.  It has to be removed from the whole house.  Let some other putz deal with it.  Christians are on lent and restricted diet-wise themselves but usually they aren't inclined to give up Chametz...the whole bread and Christ thing...so the tradeoff usually works out for everyone's gain.  There are special instructions for ridding your home of Chametz.   It's quite a serious thing as the following states: "For whoever eats chametz, that soul shall be cut off from Israel (Exodus, 12:15)."  Rough!  One also has to obtain special Matzahs for Passover and special kosher food. Kosher for today and kosher for Passover are two different things. Even the dog must eat kosher pet food! (But what if your dog's an agnostic?)

Passover is basically a Festival of Liberation, liberation of the Jews from Egypt 3,000 years ago, a 'passing over' from slavery to freedom.  After an ordeal of 10 plagues and some eons of slavery, Moses finally negotiated a liberation out of the Egyptian Pharaoh and the many Jewish slaves were free to go. So happy were they to get the hell outa there, they left without bread and had to make unleavened bread or matzah on the exodus out. The Pharaoh, meanwhile, changed his mind about his deed and sent an army after them.  Moses had to part the Red Sea and rescue everybody like Indiana Jones.

The climax of the holiday is a feast called the Seder. Passover is celebrated for 8 days (7 for Reform Jews who have other things to do and would like to wrap it up a day early, thank you very much).  There are 7 main symbolic foods eaten during the Seder: the ubiquitous Matzah - Christians love this food too...it's a very cool cracker;  haroseth - crushed nuts and apples;  the egg (see Easter above); salt water; maror - like horse-radish; karpas - boiled potatoes or radishes; and z'roah -a piece of meat. All these foods refer symbolically to the time when Jews were slaves and the pain of oppression.  And what could be more conducive to sympathetic holiday suffering than this Spartan food?

The leader of the Seder sits at the head of the table, washes his hands to symbolize a brave new day, the traditional Kiddush is recited, and matzah or the bread of affliction is broken in two unequal pieces symbolizing the parting of the Red Sea.   Four questions are asked by the youngest person at the table: a basic overview of Passover and then it's time to eat.  After the long ceremony of pre-dinner speaches and readings and candle-lighting, everyone is pretty darn hungry.  This is intended so as to again re-live suffering.  Everyone is encouraged to pray for their enemies, specifically the looser Egyptians. And the day ends with a very hardy Shalom to all!

Visit PassoverNet for a great outline of Jewish Passover history from oppression to the ten plagues to the many wacky adventures of Moses and the Exodus.  You can "Ask the Rabbi," read some Passover recipes, peruse the glossary and order matzah right off the site. This is your basic crib notes for Passover...it's a complicated holiday. Navigate the site with an animated Mr. Matzah.  Truly a yummy icon. - m.ladd

And if all the ceremony and tradition is making you feel pain and oppression, go read some Passover Jokes.



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Holy Thursday commemorates Jesus' last supper and the sacrament of Eucharist (communion) that arose from the last supper. It's not a Holy Day of obligation, but my parents made me go to church anyway. They just got swept up in that whole Holy Week frenzy, I guess. For me, the highlight of the Holy Thursday service is "the washing of the feet." Just as Jesus wiped the disciples' feet before they sat down to their last supper, the priest washes the feet of select parishioners. At my parish, pillars of the community such as the head usher and chief Knight of Columbus were chosen to unlace their boots. For two exciting years, my mom was one of the chosen. As chairperson of the annual Giving Tree campaign, she was more than worthy. Tragedy nearly marred her first appearance on the altar. She almost left the house for church wearing panty hose. Lucky for her, I was thinking ahead and implored her to change into knee-highs. Otherwise she would have had to either wrestle her way out of the hose on the altar (probably a good way to never get invited back to the feet washing) or the priest would have washed her hosed feet and she would have had to re-insert soggy panty-hose-clad feet into her pumps. Lucky for her, I was there, and I'm no Judas--I wouldn't betray her. --julie wiskirchen

You've seen the painting, now see the musical! That's right, kids, there's a musical based on Da Vinci's Last Supper.

The Catholic Encylopedia's explanation of Holy Thursday



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Today Christians kick off the Holy Week festivities by commemorating Jesus' triumphant entrance to Jerusalem. He rode in on a donkey and the Jews fanned him with palm branches. It seemed that all was right with the world...but a week later he'd be nailed to a tree by these same fair-weather palm wavers. So this Holy Day has overtones...like when you're out drinking and having a good time, but in the back of your head, you know you'll be suffering in the morning. We have fun selecting our palm branches and braiding them into the shape of a cross or something more elaborate. But later in the Mass, we'll have to stand up and listen to and participate in the reading of the Passion, the longest gospel of the year, the story of Jesus' arrest, questioning, and execution. 

I can remember standing in church, shifting my weight from foot to foot, as if the fifteen minutes that it took the priest and the lectors to recite the Passion were an eternity. Thank God for audience participation. We'd get to yell out things like "We want Barrabas, not this Jew," tough mouthfuls like "He said he could tear down the temple and rebuild it in 3 days," and the emphatic "CRUCIFY HIM!" There was one guy in my parish who was planning to become a priest and he used to yell "CRUCIFY HIM!" at the top of his lungs. We would giggle--it was so obnoxious. Either he had an interest in S&M or he wanted everyone in the church to know he was there...I never knew which. Anyway, this audience participation works to reinforce that Jesus died for OUR sins. It was all MY fault. I hammered the thorns into his head. I drove the nails in. This is the Catholic guilt machine working overtime.  

I'd rather focus on the more pleasant side of the day, the palms. During the Palm Sunday service, the congregation is asked to hold up their palm branches and the priest blesses them and spritzes them with holy water. It now becomes a sin to throw the palm away. The only acceptable way to dispose of it is to burn it, and the palms from the previous year are burned to create the ashes for Ash Wednesday. It's customary to take your blessed palm home and display it behind a crucifix or somewhere prominent, thus ensuring peace and good will in the home. 

Another good thing about Palm Sunday-- if you're having trouble keeping your lenten vow to give up candy, you only have 6 more days until the Easter binge. Bring on the Peeps!   -- julie wiskirchen

A page about palm braiding

The Catholic Encylopedia's incredibly dense descripion of how Palm Sunday evolved over the centuries and how it's celebrated in various countries. Warning: it gave me a headache.



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The story of April tomfoolery began back in the day of French King Charles IX and the early 16th century. Those wacky Frenchmen had March 25 slated as their New Years Day.  Well, maybe not so wacky, since that is actually the advent of spring, arguably a more legitimate "beginning" than the middle of the winter....but what are you gonna do? Change the New Year day to the arbitrary day the Georgian calendar was already using? Yup.   In 1564, old Chuck proclaimed January 1 as the big yearly GO mark.  A very conservative contingent of Frenchmen hated this idea since the March 25-April 1 festival period was chock full of parties and fun.  In fact, some people "forgot" the changed day and had their parties and fun in April anyway....like, for years they forgot. 

Everyone who was toeing the January 1 line, not unlike the progressive punks of today, decided to play pranks on these old-timers by sending them foolish gifts and phony invitations to non-existent parties.   The butt of an April Fool's joke was known as Poisson d'Avril, or an April Fish.    Some zodiac thing.  Long after January 1 was embraced by all as the the day to begin all days, whimsical Frenchmen kept up the April 1 prank-making and 200 years later, the English took it up as well.  And since Americans hate to miss out on a joke, especially when they are often the brunt of it, they embraced the holiday with sporadic but loving adherence. 

Which is really the inherent beauty of April Fool's as a holiday -- you never know which year you'll get a kick out of it, some years as the butt, some as the foot.  A holiday by volunteer, there is never any pressure, but usually always a hardy chuckle.  My favorite April Fool's joke was the corporate whammy of a joke played by Taco Bell when they announced that they would be buying the liberty bell...you know, Taco Bell, Liberty Bell...get it?  Historians were outraged.  How commercial! So to speak.  What a tizzy, every high-brow was in a knot. 

And I ask you, what better butt is there to kick than high-brow America.  Who better to kick than a fast food chain, especially my favorite fast food chain, Taco Bell.  I love this holiday.  -- m. ladd

April Fool's Day Activities

April Fool's Day History

January thru March

More Holiday articles?

How do you feel about Holidays?


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