It’s hard to know what the real origin of April Fools’ Day is. The tradition of playing jokes on other people on the first day of April exists in a number of countries, but its origins are rather obscure. But all the theories posit one common source: the holiday’s roots go back to medieval European carnival culture. In fact, April Fools’ is one of the most hardy pagan traditions to have become embedded in Christian culture. Beyond that, many believe we owe the holiday to ancient Rome, where a day each spring was dedicated to the holiness of laughter. Yet others say the holiday was invented by a Neapolitan king, whose servants gave him a beautiful stuffed fish after his city survived an earthquake, as a sign of thanksgiving that they had made it through. He liked the present a lot and the next year ordered the same one. Unfortunately the servants couldn’t find the same present and so presented His Majesty not with a real stuffed fish, but with a funny-looking fish replica. Surprisingly, the fake fish didn’t anger the king, who in fact laughed at the absurdity of it all. That’s when, if you believe this tale, the tradition of playing jokes on your friends was born. Anyway, whatever the origin of the holiday is, Slavic people do tend to celebrate it, and one way they do so is to head down to Odessa, that capital of humour.
What Happens in Odessa Why Odessa?
Because, in addition to the place being famous for producing funny people, the Humourina festival, the biggest and most illustrious comedy event around, takes place here. Humourina goes back to the fall of 1972, when, after the original KVN comedy troupe called it quits, its members came up with the idea of founding a festival dedicated to laughs, crazy hijinks, absurdity, and fun. In 1973 the very first Humourina took place, the posters that advertised it emblazoned with a surreal motto that mocked the exhortations
Crazies attempt to make it down Odessa’s famous Potemkin Staircase by means of the most absurd vehicle they can dream up
of Soviet propaganda: ‘Odessa dweller, stop for a while and think whether you’ve done your best for the birth of the millionth citizen in a row!” During 1973-1976 a great Humourina tradition was also institutionalised: crazies would attempt to make it down Odessa’s famous Potemkin Staircase by means of the most absurd vehicle they could dream up. The trailblazer was KVN head Yaroslav Harechko, who descended the landmark on skis. In 1976 the festival became known as the International Humourina as thousands of international guests, mostly from the Eastern Bloc, came. They enjoyed watching the ceremonial firing of the ancient cannon on Coastal Boulevard, but that very same day the municipal authorities, frightened by the scale of the event, banned any future April Fools’ Day celebrations. The Brezhnev-era authorities didn’t like big assemblies that they couldn’t control, and they didn’t like laughter. For ten long years Humorina was forbidden, but various clubs in the city still kept the April Fools’ Day flag flying. And then in 1987, the era of glasnost, came a second breath and Humourina’s rebirth. From 1991-1995 Humourina was run by the World Odessa Dwellers Club, headed by Mikhail Ghvanetskiy. Around that time a monument to Rabinovich, the hero of all those fun Odessa stories, went up. That event inaugurated a tradition of dedicating a new monument to someone or other every year at Humourina.
April Fools’ is one of the most hardy pagan traditions to have become embedded in Christian culture
Humourina is packed full of fun events. The current menu offers a carnival, the Very Odessa Olympic Games, pop concerts, and loads of other stuff. Much of the action typically takes place at a local football field and attendees take part in ridiculous competitions such as a race in which participators run hunched under backpacks and with bags in their hands. Another competition involves street racing in rubbish-collection carts. The carnival parade usually starts at Kulikov Field. Classic old Soviet cars take to the streets (regular traffic is banned) and you see weird vehicles like an ambulance with fire ladders on top and a fake patient suffering in the back of it. Oh, and there’s Marilyn Monroe in a limo, greeting an audience that’s also full of people in costumes. Fairy-tale characters are over-represented. Every year the traditional Humourina competitions and hijinks are complemented with some new ones. Humorina 2006 featured the innovative ‘Dumplings Are a National Product’ project, the less said about which the better. In Russia, by the way, April Fools’ Day took root after the residents of Saint Petersburg woke up in panic to a fire warning. The alarm was false. The date happened to be 1 April. These days, or so a statistic of dubious provenance indicates, about seventy percent of people in Eastern Europe play jokes on their friends, intimates, and relatives on 1 April.
Go South and Laugh
Humourina used to change its motto every year, but lately it’s stuck with this one: ‘Life in Odessa is always a holiday’. If you don’t like it, make up your own. As long as you’re in Odessa for the event you might as well visit the notable sights of this great city on the Black Sea. Take a look through the Archaeological Museum, with its more then 160,000 exhibits, including pieces from Egypt and ancient Greece and Rome that were dug up during the excavations. You might also stop into the Arts Museum, founded in 1977, its premises designed by respected Kyiv designer Anatoliy Haydamaka. If you’re keen on photography take some photos at photo-friendly locations like the Unknown Soldier memorial and the monuments to Count Richelieu, the city’s governor in the early nineteenth century, and to Alexander Pushkin, who spent time in Odessa when the Tsar sent him into internal exile. Odessa’s main street is Deribasovskaya, named after Jose de Ribas, an 18th century Spaniard serving in the Russian imperial military. Also in Odessa you’ll find the chair from the movie ‘The Twelve Chairs’ - being photographed in it is a must during your sojourn in the city. You should also visit French Boulevard, considered Odessa’s most beautiful street. Initially the boulevard was called Fountain Boulevard, but after Nikolai II visited France in 1902 he had it renamed. It’s here that you’ll find Ukraine’s oldest champagne factory. And you can’t miss the Potemkin Staircase, 142 metres long and consisting of 192 stairs, built in 1837. The staircase offers a spectacular view of the harbour and was the setting of one of the most famous scenes in movie history, courtesy of the legendary Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein in his epic ‘The Battleship Potemkin’. Anyway, if you go to Odessa you’ll inevitably get a good laugh and a memorable journey, pictures from which you can show off to your friends and family.
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