April's Fool à la Française
If there is one tradition beloved of young and old alike in France, it’s April Fool’s Day – called ‘Poisson d’Avril’ in French, literally meaning ‘April's Fish’.
Children try to pin small white or coloured paper fish on the backs of their friends, parents or teachers without being seen. Some victims of the trick don’t notice until the end of the day, making everyone laugh. And when they do discover the fish, the person who put it there shouts: ‘April Fool!’, or ‘Poisson d’Avril!’ in French.
Adults play tricks or practical jokes with varying degrees of success, some more credible than others. Even the media gets involved, and the aim is to spot the false news items journalists are trying to feed to their readers, viewers, listeners and all their followers on social media. The joke is obviously at someone else’s expense, but it’s all done in honest good fun. It’s a fun-filled day.
This custom supposedly dates back to the time of King Charles IX of France who, in 1564, decreed that January 1st was the beginning of the year. He did this to unify the calendar of the Kingdom of France as, up to then, the beginning of the year had been between March 25th and April 1st, depending on the region. Many French people refused to accept this change to the calendar and said they would keep exchanging New Year’s gifts on April 1st, but to make fun of them, certain jokers decided to invent fake presents and play tricks. Since then, people have been playing tricks on each other on April 1st every year!
But the numerous explanations for why a fish is incorporated into the tricks are, unfortunately, entirely hypothetical. One suggestion is that the tradition is linked to the Zodiac because April is when the Pisces sign ends. Or perhaps it’s linked to the end of Lent, when only fish can be eaten or given as a gift, or it could be that because fishing is not allowed in France in April to protect fish reproduction, people play tricks with fake fish.
Whatever the reason, this fun tradition was quickly exported to other countries: the USA, the UK, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Portugal, Switzerland and Japan.