What’s An April Fish? The Story Behind April Fools

I grew up in France where we celebrate April Fools Day a little differently than we do here in the US. POISSONAVRIL The traditional prank in France is called a “Poisson d’Avril”, which means April Fish.  For children of all ages (yes that includes the grown up kind) this prank consists of attaching a home made paper fish on the back of a friend, colleague or family member without getting caughtWhen the prankster succeeds he yells out “Poisson d’Avril!”  Simple enough right?  Well when everyone you approach on April 1st is expecting to wear a paper fish or two, we are all hyper vigilant and it becomes quite challenging to place the fish on anyone. 

Kids delight in this and come up with all sorts of strategies to trick their designated fish recipient into wearing their paper fish.  Often this becomes a game in and of itself as children will slap each other on the back and laugh heartily when their friend tries vigorously to catch the fish that is not there, turning this way and that.  Young and older children alike quickly turn this into a special game of tag, the point of which, of course, is to avoid getting the fish.

My daughters attend a French school and I expect there will be some paper fish involved in their games today.

But why the fish and where does this tradition come from?  I decided to do a little digging around to find out and as it turns out April Fools does indeed have it’s roots in France…

Charles IX[Photo Credit: After François Clouet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

In 1564 king Charles IX decided to make January 1st the official New Year.  During a trip through various regions of his kingdom, he discovered that  the new year was celebrated at different times in  different regions.  Many of the celebration fell sometime around April 1st but not all.  Some regions of France celebrated  at Christmas, others exchanged gifts on March 25th, the feast of the annunciation of Mary, while a handful of regions celebrated on Easter.  The king’s desire was to alleviate any confusion, align France with the Roman calendar and establish an official start of new year for all of his kingdom.  He announced his decision through the “Édit de Roussillon” on August 9, 1964.

In response to the king’s decisions, the more conservative members of his court decided to exchange fake gifts and play jokes on one another on April 1st which became a symbolic date of their resistance.

And the fish?

April 1st also coincided with the end of the lenten season during which everyone ate fish as the consumption of meat was forbidden for Christian during the 40 days leading up to Easter.  The most common gifts that were given at that time were gifts of food, especially fish.  The change in date left many confused and to mock the “fools”  who had not heard of the change imposed by Charles IX a dead fish was discreetly pinned to their back.  As the day went on the rotting fish became more and more smelly.  The “Poisson d’Avril” was born. Yuck!

All I can say is thank goodness for the paper fish!

The tradition of playing pranks on April 1st spread to various countries including the Netherlands, Germany, the US and Japan, but somehow without the fish…

Oh and in case you’re wondering, the French are clever pranksters and though the tradition of the paper fish remains the favorite of the day, we are not immune from other pranks, including the broadcast of false news on radio, television and newspapers.  So whatever you do, don’t believe everything you hear today!

What about you, do you play any pranks on your kids or colleagues on April Fools?  What’s your favorite prank?

 

Comments

  1. I never knew the story behind April fools day, thanks for sharing.

  2. I always love to know where our old customs come from. I found this very interesting – thank you.

  3. Love it! Great way to celebrate April Fool’s. I love your site, by the way. :o)

  4. What a fun article! I grew up knowing the “Poisson D’Avril” because I speak French (my parents are from Haiti) however, I never knew the story or that it actually came from France. Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. The fish game sounds like fun.
    Today a friend texted me this morning and asked me if I saw the penguins flying south. I am not a morning person, so it took me and hour to figure out it was April fool’s even though I know that penguins don’t fly… smile.

  6. Hi Valerie. With part of my ancestry French I was aware the tradition had its roots there but never looked into the dtails so thanks for an interesting and informative post.

    My favourite April Fools prank ? Your datimg the Edit de Rosillon as 1964 ! Come on, own up. It wasnt a typo !

    Second favourite. I am moving to my summer place today amid blinding snow, freezing rain and a semi-blizzard. Who would have guessed it !

    • You are welcome Mr. Paul! I must confess the joke is on me with the date .. did I really type 1964 instead of 1564… That’s the problem with proof reading, we often see what we think we wrote instead of what is actually on the page. As for moving to your summer place in the midst of a snow storm that is funny! Hope the sun comes out soon!

  7. I never knew where April’s fool originated – interesting story. Good thing they changed to paper fish – can’t imagine having a real one pinned to my back, especially on hot days.
    Thanks for sharing, this was great.
    Lenie

    • Boy am I glad we’ve switched to paper fish.. I love fish, the fresh kind, especially grilled on the barbeque with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh herbs, but will do without the spoiled, stinky kind 🙂

  8. Its always good when you find out where certain traditions come from. But fish on the back is just evil, especially if it is hot outside. Thanks for sharing

  9. Paris, France is on my bucket list of places to visit! Have you been to Coco Chanel’s apartment? I think open it up for tourists. Love the story! =)

    • o Crystal I have not been to Coco Chanel’s apartment but I would love to! I’ve always LOVED her and of course her designs and Chanel 19 is my all time favorite perfume! Let me know when you get to Paris. You are going to LOVE it!!!

  10. I was just wondering where April Fools had come from! Thanks! I remember as a kid in Canada there were all kinds of pranks that were played at school, although I remember ‘kick me signs’ not fish as being the popular choice to tape to someones back. I wonder if April Fools is still as popular today though? I don’t hear of as many pranks on the radio like I used to.

    • I remember a few of those “kick me” tags as well Sandy. I’ve been living in the US for close to 30 years now but judging from what my friends share I think the French prank just as much now as they did then 🙂

  11. Catarina says:

    You reminded me of the fish, Valerie. Honestly had forgotten the cute story

  12. Very interesting! Thanks for digging into the source of April Fool’s Day and Poisson d’Avril
    I’m sure I will be sharing this story with my friends next year!

  13. This is first time I read this story associated with April fool.
    I know about different story , in past a large number of poor people were fooled and killed by the king. It is something like; King told poor people that he have another country for them all poor were gathered on a ship and it was told that ship will take them to new place. When ship went in sea all sailors broke and made holes in ship and escaped in life boats.
    Ship was drowned and all were killed and when king got the news he laughed and said he fooled them it was April 1st and the day is celebrated after that.
    But in Pakistan it is a really troubling day there are so many lies everywhere.. There are many campaigns that we should not take this day for serious jokes but keep it for fun.
    I wish people try something like this paper fish.
    I learned something new about April 1st.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • My dear Andleeb, what a horrifying and tragic story you share! How evil of the king to treat his citizens this way. I pray peace may come to your beautiful country, there is so much heartache, my heart bleeds when I hear of it. May God always bless you and yours.

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