What does “Poisson d’Avril” mean?
April Fools’ Day in France is a solemn celebration dedicated to Saint Andrew, the patron saint of fishermen. Ha, poisson d’avril (Meaning: Fish of April)! Like everywhere else, France marks April 1 with pranks. But where do fish fit in? Read on to learn more about the French tradition of poisson d’avril.
What are the Origins and History of Poisson d’Avril?
Poisson d’avril, or April Fools’ Day in France, has a long history with several plausible origin stories.
Yet nobody seems to know precisely where it began. Partly because April Fools’ Day is not an exclusively French custom.
One of the earliest yet hotly disputed references to April Fools’ Day comes from across La Manche (the British Channel) in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392.)
Far less ambiguous is a 1508 poem by the French poet Eloy d’Amerval who first uses the words “poisson d’avril.”
But there is little evidence d’Amerval was referring to April 1. Instead, he may have poetically described a foolish person. Nonetheless, he deserves credit for introducing the term (despite not making our list of top ten French poets.)
Why is April Fools’ Day celebrated in France?
The most popular theory explaining why April 1 is a day for practical jokes centers on the little-known Edict of Roussillon.
The story tells how towns in France and across Europe celebrated the new year in late March, with some festivities ending on April 1. In 1564, King Charles IX simplified the religious calendar by edict, formerly making January 1 the start of the year.
Parts of France either didn’t get the memo or ignored it, maintaining the tradition of celebrating the new year at the end of March and eliciting ridicule from those who had adopted the modern calendar.
The theory is questionable, despite being repeated over the years. Not least because April Fools’ Day had apparently entered folklore before that date.
And not just in France; a Flemish poem of 1561 jokes about sending servants on fools’ errands on April 1. Across la Manche, the English also marked the date with pranks and jokes.
Despite having more holes than a fish kettle, it remains the internet’s favorite origin story for April Fools’ Day in France.
How is April Fools’ Day in France connected to fish?
So, how did April Fools’ Day in France become known as poisson d’avril?
One theory is that April 1 is tied to the end of Lent when fish was on the menu after 40 days of fasting.
Another plausible theory is that April 1 was once the start of the fishing season.
Or perhaps it all traces to the poet d’Amerval, who coined the term and associated it with foolishness.
In truth, nobody really knows the true origin story of April Fools’ Day in France. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
What is undisputed is that a day of pranks and fishy frivolity was firmly on the calendar by the end of the 16th century.
In 1718, the day gained the official seal of approval when poisson d’avril entered the esteemed Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française as the French name for April Fools’ Day.
Underlining French influence at the time, the day also became known as “April Fish” in Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and French cantons in Switzerland. Even if nobody truly understood why.
What are the Traditions of Poisson d’Avril?
April Fools’ Day in France is marked with two customs.
The first custom mirrors the rest of the world by playing pranks and practical jokes.
It pays to be skeptical on April 1, especially if you hear outlandish news headlines.
Past April Fool hoaxes have included Le Parisien reporting the Eiffel Tower was being relocated and Raymond Domenech — French football coach and serial prankster — claiming he had withdrawn the team from the Euro 2008 soccer championship because he didn’t fancy their chances
But practical jokes are not unique. It’s the second French custom that stands out and puts un poisson front and center. Or, more accurately, on the back.
It is a time-worn tradition for children (and playful adults) to surreptitiously attach paper fish to people’s backs. The aim is to avoid being spotted. If successful, you can loudly and proudly proclaim poisson d’avril to let the “victim” know.
This novel form of tomfoolery probably began in the 19th century. And may have underlined the importance of Lent, with the paper fish both symbolic of Christ and representing the gift of food.
This short video gives several examples of people with fish stuck on peoples’ backs.
April fools day in France – a time for vigilance in France
If you’re visiting France on April 1, watch your back. Not just figuratively. If you see kids scampering away, you may have acquired un poisson d’avril.
Above all, take outlandish news stories with a grain of salt. Especially if they sound remotely fishy!