Poisson d’avril: The French April Fool’s Day

Fish on a Plate

Many people look forward to the first of April, it gives them a chance to play pranks and joke around with people they otherwise wouldn’t. This year during the global pandemic that has ravaged our global community and economy, people are being told not to play pranks today. As a general theory, I don’t understand why–aren’t difficult times the exact time for humor and fun? Well, yes and no, because everyone needs a way to lighten the mood, but the spirit of this fun can be taken too far and enter the spectrum of mean spiritedness.

I wouldn’t, for example, condone what my boyfriend did to me, at three o’clock this morning, after tossing and turning for hours due to his shoulder pain. We had gotten to bed earlier than usual, so I had been sleeping since midnight, and he sat up in bed grabbed my phone to make sure it was really April Fool’s Day and announced loudly, “Oh fuck,” which instantly spurred my latent mama bear reaction.

I sprang up from my slumber and said, “WHAT? WHAT’S WRONG?”

“My mom just died,” he sounded beaten down and upset, there was something I hadn’t ever really heard in his voice before.

“Holy shit, baby! Are you serious, I’m so sorry!” I was half asleep, but apparently my response was fairly appropriate considering the seriousness of someone’s parent passing away.

“APRIL FOOL’S!” He proclaimed enthusiastically, a snarky smile barely visible on his face as he fled from the bed and resigned himself to sleep on the recliner before I could even smack him with my pillow.

“That’s not funny you jackass!” At this point, according to Robert’s recollection this morning, I rolled back over and fell back asleep when he curled up in the recliner, knowing he was due for retaliation. He still is. It will happen before midnight tonight. He won’t know what hit him, but it will probably be me.

So, what’s with the fish?

Fish on a Net
Photography by Hoan Vo

In France April Fool’s is referred to as Poisson d’avril, or April Fish (literally, Fish of April). The theories about the origin of this typically child oriented holiday, are believed to be between the realm of antiquity to the Renaissance.

Theory of the Gregorian Calendar Change

In 1564, King Charles IX of France transitioned the country from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which meant that April first was no longer the mark of the new year–so there are those that believe that the tradition started when people would jokingly wish each other a “Happy New Year,” then give each other joke gifts to celebrate the memory of the older traditions. There are some accounts where this time was spent poking fun at those who were too stubborn to use the new calendar, which is said to have spurred the tradition of attaching paper fish to the person’s back and proclaiming, “Poisson d’avril!” After a while people got used to the new Gregorian calendar, but the first day of April would always be associated with the foolish behavior and jokes that had gotten people used to the new way of keeping track of time.

Le livre de la deablerie by Eloy d’Amerval (1508)

Illustration of Le livre de la deablerie by Elroy d'Amerval (1508)
Illustration of Le livre de la deablerie by Eloy d’Amerval (1508)

Despite the compelling story in which the tradition came about due to a change of calendars, there is evidence that this tradition actually existed well before the shift that King Charles IX made for his country. The first day of April being the center of practical jokes and mischief actually predates the calendar change, which is documented in a poem by Eloy d’Amerval titled Le livre de la deablerie which was written in 1508.

This poem, written by a French choirmaster and composer, was essentially a conversation between Satan and Lucifer; it consisted of their nefarious plots for what kind of wicked deeds they could do in the future. While this poem would only truly be of interest to music historians, it did include a line of verse which would lead us all later to wonder if this was truly a record of the legendary April Fool’s day predating the calendar change.

maquereau infâme de maint homme et de mainte femme, poisson d’avril.

Le livre de la deablerie by Eloy d’Amerval (1508)

This line of verse essentially translates to “infamous mackeral of many men and many women, fish of April.” Since we know that poisson d’avril is really the French term for April Fool, it’s possible that Eloy d’Amerval only intended the phrase to denote a foolish person, whether they be male or female.

No, but really what’s with the fish?

The prevailing theory of what spurred the tradition of April Fool’s Day, or Poisson d’avril, is actually based on fishing trends. Fish spawning dictates that April is a bad month for fish–or, depending upon the era, the time that fishing was a forbidden act–since April was a month when new fish had been freshly spawned and needed to be able to grow to the appropriate size and have a chance to procreate themselves. Given that eating fish during this time was impossible, unless they had been dried or otherwise preserved, to claim to see one or eat one would be construed as a joke. Another tradition that is emphasized in this theory is that some people were said to throw dried herring into the river and yell out, “Poisson d’avril,” as if they had spotted a fish worth catching in the river.

Historians can’t seem to agree on what the real origin of this tradition is though, as some state that there might be a connection to the practice of fishermen and their role with carnival. The Dunkerque Carnaval, for example, starts with plastic wrapped dried herrings being thrown from the windows of City Hall into the crowd gathered below–however, this carnival takes place in February, not April, so it doesn’t make complete sense as to why this tradition would transition to April for the day of fools.

King Salmon Catch in Chitina, AK
King Salmon Catch in Chitina, AK

Regardless of where this holiday originates, it’s best to use your better judgment on whether or not your prank could be construed as being mean or hurtful, not because it’s necessary to censor yourself, but because there is already enough going on in the world (especially right now), without adding to it with something that you might consider a joke. Harmless jokes are alright, but if you let them get out of hand, you only have yourself to blame.

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