On December 28 in many Catholic, Spanish-speaking countries, people celebrate the Día de Los Santos Innocentes, or “Day of the Holy Innocents.” Though its origins are steeped in tragedy—King Herod’s massacre of Jewish babies at the time of Christ’s birth—observances of the day bear no resemblance today to those ancient events. Instead, the Day of the Holy Innocents is the equivalent of what other people of the world will celebrate tomorrow—April Fool’s Day.
Both on December 28 in some countries and on April 1 in others, the day is set aside for humor and practical jokes. In many places tomorrow, people will enjoy pranking each other and listening to more “fake news” than usual, all of it in good fun.
No country designates April 1 officially as a public holiday, so businesses and governments typically do not close for the day. But for the last half century in a particular city in a country of special note, April Fool’s Day has been a very big deal every year, until now.
The country is Ukraine and the city is Odessa. If you didn’t know Odessa before, you know it now as an important Ukrainian port on the Black Sea, the one an invading army at this very moment is bombarding and attempting to seize by force. In anticipation of Russian attack, the Catholic Bishop of this city, Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk, predicted last week that the assault will fail “because people will fight ferociously to defend their city.” He declared that though Odessa is “not fully defended against planes and missiles, every street and square will resist, even if this takes years.”
April Fool’s Day is known locally in Odessa as Humorina. It started in 1973 as a festival that brought huge crowds into the streets, something the Soviet-imposed communist government at the time didn’t appreciate. More than once, the regime banned it. But since Ukrainian independence in 1991, Odessans never missed the opportunity on April 1 to fill the city with clowns, mimes, parades, colorful floats and practical jokers.
When you pull a joke or prank on another person in Odesa on this day, it is customary to say, “Первое Апреля, никому не верю” (“Pervoye Aprelya, nikomu ne veryu”). It means in English, “April the First, I trust nobody!”
To get a sense for the joy of the holiday in Odessa, watch these two short videos from Humorina 2017:
And Humorina, 2018:
Sadly, nothing like what you just watched in those two videos will happen in Odessa tomorrow. No one will be laughing. The streets will not resonate with the sounds of happy children and cheerful music. Instead, thanks to one evil tyrant from a neighboring country, it’s more likely the city’s one million residents will be drowned out by air raid sirens and bomb blasts.
One thing seems sure, considering the amazing courage of Ukrainians across the country and Bishop Szyrokoradiuk’s prediction in Odessa: The people will mark this day in heroic, death-defying resistance to Russian forces. The real fool of this April Fool’s Day in Odessa is Vladimir Putin.
Nothing justifies what the kleptomaniac in the Kremlin is doing to this brave and beleaguered country. Whatever Putin’s motives and objectives are, they do not excuse the deaths of tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians or the wanton destruction of schools, hospitals, theaters, and apartment buildings. If anything, his brutality should remind the world that Ukraine had every right and considerable good reason as a sovereign nation to pursue its interests with the European Union and with NATO.
In 2019, a website of an Odessa travel agency offered this advice to tourists:
Looking for what to see in Odessa in the days of Humorina, remember that a large number of people on the street can be a bit drunk because alcohol sells everywhere. Be careful and do not get into unnecessary conflicts.
“Be careful and do not get into unnecessary conflicts.” That, I predict, is advice that Vladimir Putin should have taken himself. Ukrainians will see to it that he deeply regrets that he didn’t. Humorina will return to Odessa and when it does, let it be an occasion to laugh at the arrogant pretensions of power-hungry despots.