April Fools’ Day tradition in France: Le Poisson d’avril

Poissons d’avril?

It’s a pity that President Macron’s announcement of a new lockdown last night wasn’t a Poisson d’avril (April Fool), even if it would have been in rather bad taste. Sadly, like Groundhog Day, we’re going around that same old circuit for the third time. At least the government is generously allowing us to go up to 10 km from home without filling in an authorisation form. Let’s hope this has the desired effect on the numbers. Meanwhile, as it’s 1st April, let’s have a look at the traditions in France.

1st April is noteworthy in France for two things: jokes or hoaxes in the media and the strange practice of sticking a paper fish on people’s backs without their noticing.

Media hoaxes

Canulars sound like some unpleasant medical device but are media hoaxes in French. They have been going for some time. These days, real news items can be so strange that it’s difficult to distinguish the fake ones on 1st April. Some are pretty obvious, including the Police Nationale announcement in 2019 that it was recruiting rabbits into its ranks for their sense of smell and hearing and agility.

One of my favourites is the announcement by a TV channel on 1st April 1972 that the French government was going to introduce a non-smoking ban in all public places. Fifty years ago, this was clearly unthinkable.

Origins of le poisson d’avril

What about le poisson d’avril? Schoolchildren throughout France cut out and colour in paper fish, which they stick on someone’s back on 1st April. The idea is that the victim is unaware of it, but once the prank is discovered, the prankster shouts, “Poisson d’avril !”

The origins of this custom are obscure, but the tradition of making fun of people on a particular date has been around for some centuries. Fellow blogger Mel linked to an article that gave some clues, while good old Wikipedia has come up with a range of possibilities.

First, the religious explanation. Lenten fasting ends at Easter, around 1st April, although eating fish was tolerated during that period. Also, the fish was a symbol of Christianity.

Second, the complicated historical explanation. Before the 16th century, different countries and even provinces within a country celebrated the beginning of the calendar year at different dates, sometimes 1st April. In France, Charles IX decreed in 1564 that the year should henceforth start on 1st January. Pope Gregory XIII extended this to the whole of Christendom by adopting the Gregorian Calendar in 1582.

Some people found it difficult to make the change. Others hadn’t heard about it and stuck with celebrating the new year on 1st April. To make fun of them, people in the know played jokes on them and gave them false fish, mocking the end of Lent.

A final explanation associates the fish with the fishing season, which often occurred around 1st April. People stuck a real fish on a fisherman’s back or in his pocket without his knowledge. If he didn’t notice immediately, the fish might start to rot, making it even funnier for the perpetrator. Well, chacun à son goût.  

So take your pick.

We need some levity in the current situation, so have you heard any good April Fools this year?

P.S. The cuckoo has arrived (this isn’t an April Fool). Heard here for the first time this year at lunchtime on 30th March. This is on the early side. When it hears about lockdown, it might go home again.

P.P.S. Happy Easter. Take care.

You might also like:

French and Corsican Easter Traditions

French Superstitions

The First Cuckoo

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2021. All rights reserved.

4 comments

  1. Ah yes, if only our new lockdown was indeed just a prank! Part of me is fed up of having to go through this yet again, thankfully not so strict as first time, and part of me thinks it had to be done and just wants to come out the other side. I refuse to wish my life away so will have to come up with nice treats, every day for next four weeks. First of which today was an impulse buy of strawberry plants from Gamm Vert!! Take care. MJ

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not so strict in some ways, certainly. And at least we are not in the depths of winter. A great idea to think of treats every day. No shortage of those! Bon courage.

      Like

  2. Glad to hear the cuckoo arrived! Very sorry you must submit to another confinement in France. From where I sit now a bit outside of the picture in Switzerland, it seems the French need tough medicine from their leaders!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I seem to react differently to each lockdown. The first time, I was scared; the second time I was angry because I felt people had brought it on themselves by their lackadaisical behaviour over the summer; this time I’m just resigned and fed up. It’s difficult to know quite why the numbers are so bad in France now, except that the variants have taken hold, but Macron & co have been criticised for not decreeing a lockdown sooner. Just hoping this is the last one and that the vaccination programme really gets off the ground. Happy Easter.

      Liked by 1 person

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