Note: this post was written in 2021, just in case you think the lockdown is current.
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.
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 a 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.
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