11 of the Greatest Pranks of All Time

Rebecca O'Connell / istock
Rebecca O'Connell / istock

Think that time you filled your friend’s dorm room with hundreds of water-filled plastic cups was impressive? These large-scale pranks made headlines around the world—and will give you something to aspire to.

1. BBC ANNOUNCES THAT BIG BEN IS GOING DIGITAL.

In 1980, a BBC World Service news announcement reported that Big Ben would be given a digital display. Not only that, the iconic clock’s now-useless hands would be given away to the first four people who called in. While most people reacted with shock and anger, one Japanese seaman immediately called the station with hopes of claiming his prize.

2. AN ICEBERG APPEARS IN SYDNEY HARBOUR.

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On April 1, 1978, residents of Sydney, Australia, awoke to find a gigantic iceberg floating in Sydney Harbour. Days before the prank, electronics entrepreneur Dick Smith announced that an iceberg he had towed from Antarctica would be arriving in Sydney the following week (to give the exact date, he felt, would be a tip-off). And sure enough, there it was. The public was agog at the spectacle—the Australian navy even called Smith to ask if he needed help mooring his iceberg—until a rainstorm revealed the iceberg for what it truly was: A barge covered in sheets of white plastic and fire-fighting foam.

3. TACO BELL BUYS THE LIBERTY BELL.

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In 1996, Taco Bell tried to take corporate sponsorship to a whole new level by buying a bit of history. On April 1, the fast food chain took out full-page ads in six of the country’s biggest newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, announcing that "in an effort to help the national debt," it had purchased the Liberty Bell. According to the (fictional) bulletin, the Liberty Bell would remain available to the public but would split its time between Philly and Taco Bell's headquarters in Irvine, California.

Distressed calls (including from aides to two U.S. senators) to the National Park Service and Taco Bell headquarters prompted Taco Bell to issue a second—this time real—press release revealing the hoax and pledging to donate $50,000 for the Liberty Bell’s upkeep.

4. A BRITISH NEWS SHOW CONVINCES VIEWERS THAT SPAGHETTI GROWS ON TREES.

"It isn't only in Britain that spring this year has taken everyone by surprise," BBC current affairs program Panorama began a broadcast by saying in 1957. "Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower, at least a fortnight earlier than usual. But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it’s simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it’s resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop."

The three-minute segment included footage of Swiss spaghetti harvesters pulling the pasta off tree branches. Hundreds of Britons, many of who didn’t eat the Italian dish regularly, called the BBC to ask how they could grow a spaghetti tree of their own. Without missing a beat, the BBC replied, "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

5. WISCONSIN STUDENTS MOVE LADY LIBERTY TO LAKE MENDOTA.

University of Wisconsin students Leon Varjian and Jim Mallon made a bold campaign promise in order to win election to the Wisconsin Student Association in 1978: They would bring the Statue of Liberty to Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota. The two won the election and, in February 1979, they set out to make good on their pledge. It took Varjian and Mallon three days—and $4000 of student fees—to assemble their Lady Liberty proxy out of plywood, chicken wire, papier-mâché, and muslin cloth and assemble it on the frozen lake.

This wasn’t Varjian’s first prank (although it may be his most time-consuming); in 1977 he petitioned to have the school named the "University of New Jersey" (Varjian’s home state) so that "students could go to a fancy East Coast school without moving." Mallon, on the other hand, would go on to create the cult comedy television show Mystery Science Theater 3000.

6. MIT STUDENTS BUILD A GIGANTIC GAME OF TETRIS.

Students at MIT devised the idea of turning the 295-foot tall Green Building on campus into a larger-than-life, playable Tetris game in 1993—and in 2012, they finally made it a reality. It took the hackers four years of planning and two months of sleepless nights in order to construct what the MIT student newspaper The Tech called the "holy grail of hacks." Through a complicated system of wirelessly controlled LED lights, the talented engineers transformed 153 of the building’s windows into the falling colored blocks, which were controlled by players at a podium.

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During "The Great Rose Bowl Hoax" of 1961, Caltech students orchestrated a surprise for the University of Washington Huskies during their halftime card stunt show (in which people in the stands used signs to spell out messages of support for their team). A crafty group of Caltech students broke into the dorm housing Washington’s cheerleaders and changed each of their thousands of instruction note cards. During halftime, the prank went off without a hitch: When the Huskies fans flipped their signs over, they spelled out "Caltech." The prank made national news.

The best part of the mischief? Caltech doesn’t even have a football team. The Huskies were playing the University of Minnesota in that Rose Bowl game.

8. NIXON ANNOUNCES HE'S RUNNING FOR RE-ELECTION.

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In 1992, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation reported that Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 following the Watergate Scandal, had declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. To corroborate their story, NPR played a clip of Nixon declaring his intention to run and claiming, "I never did anything wrong, and I won't do it again."

As is the way of these things, callers flooded NPR with questions and cries of outrage. It wasn’t until the second half of the program that host John Hockenberry revealed that the whole broadcast had been an April Fools' Day joke. Comedian Rich Little—nicknamed "The Man of a Thousand Voices"—was responsible for "Nixon’s" speech.

9. SWEDISH NEWS STATION CONVINCES READERS THAT STOCKINGS CAN TURN THEIR BLACK-AND-WHITE TVS TO COLOR.

A 1962 April Fools' Day broadcast from what was then Sweden’s only television network, SVT, told viewers that they would be able to see the normally black-and-white broadcast in color… if they had the right materials.

"Technical expert" Kjell Stensson explained to viewers, in highly scientific details, that if they stretched a pair of nylon stockings over their television sets, the light would be filtered in such a way as to allow them to see the broadcast in color. To best see the results, Stensson recommended, viewers would need to move their heads from side to side as they watched. Needless to say, the thousands of viewers who fell for the hoax looked a little bit silly.

10. AN EASTER ISLAND FIGURE WASHES ASHORE IN THE NETHERLANDS.

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While Swedes were covering their TVs with stockings, the Dutch thought an iconic landmark had washed upon their shores. On March 29, 1962, a man walking on the beach near Zandvoort, Netherlands, found what he could only identify as an Easter Island statue. A few days later, on April 1, an expert flew in from Norway to inspect the figure and declared that it was indeed an authentic artifact, carried from the South Pacific to Europe. The statue was put on display in the town’s center for all to see.

By day’s end, the sculpture’s creator, a Dutch artist named Edo van Tetterode, had come clean and confessed to planting the "artifact" on the beach. The following year, Tetterode founded the National April 1st Society, and, in a tradition that would carry on until his death in 1996, awarded a small bronze Easter Island head trophy to the perpetrator of the year’s best prank.

11. ALABAMA CHANGES THE VALUE OF PI.

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The Alabama state legislature forever changed math, science, and the world as we know it in 1998, when it declared that the mathematical constant pi would now be valued at 3.0, instead of the usual 3.14159—or so claimed the April issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter. In a story by April Holiday for the "Associalized Press," experts argue for and against Alabama’s radical change, which was said to be made because 3.0 is a "biblical value." The story quickly went viral—email existed in 1998, you guys!—but no one knew the real extent of the hoax’s success until Alabama legislators began receiving hundreds of calls in protest.

This story originally ran in 2015.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
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By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images
Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images

From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. Hanging Stockings

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. Caroling

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. Using Evergreens as Christmas Trees

Rows of Christmas trees at tree farm on cold winter morning
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Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British royal family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. The Colors Red and Green

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. Ugly Christmas Sweaters

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. Leaving Milk and Cookies for Santa

Closeup image of wish list and treats for Santa Claus on table next to burning fireplace
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. The A Christmas Story Marathon on TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. Yule Logs

Chocolate yule log cake with red currant on wooden background
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Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. Advent Calendars

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child that featured 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. Eggnog

Eggnog in two glass cups
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It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called posset, a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it for toasting.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that nog was short for noggin, which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. Christmas Cards

Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

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