In many countries, the first day of April is a day to play harmless jokes on family and friends. This usually consists of telling a farfetched story in such a way that it sounds like it could be true. When the other person falls for our joke, we exclaim, “April fool!” and have a laugh. In France, they play the same sort of jokes, but instead of saying “April fool!” they say, “poisson d’avril!” which translates into “April fish!”. One of the favourite “April fish” jokes among French children is to tape a paper fish to someone’s back without them knowing it.
Why April fish?
To find out why these jokes are called April fish, we have to go back to 1564 to the time of Charles IX, or Charlie 9 as we like to call him. Up until this time, the New Year in France was celebrated in the spring but there was no fixed date. It could be at different times throughout the country, but in most places the new year began at the end of March or the first of April.
The new year starts in spring
This was a time when people would bring out their spring clothing, get all dressed up, and go out into fields to celebrate the reawakening of nature – the start of a brand new year. It was customary during these festivities to exchange small gifts, usually food and often fish. Why fish? Maybe it was because the fish is the last sign of the zodiac and the sign for this time of year. Or perhaps because it was during a time when meat was forbidden for religious reasons, so people ate seafood. Whatever the reason, fish was a popular New Year’s gift.
The new year starts in winter
When Charlie 9 travelled around his kingdom and saw all of these different dates for the beginning of the year, he wanted to pull his country together. He wanted to get everyone singing Auld Lang Syne (or the French equivalent) on the same date. But the date he chose was the 1st of January. The New Year would no longer be celebrated in the spring, but in the winter.
How not to celebrate New Year’s Day
Some of Charlie’s subjects, especially in the rural regions, didn’t hear about the date change or just didn’t want to change their customs and kept their spring celebration. Others felt obliged to comply with the King’s new rules and moved their merry-making to January. But even though they changed the date of their holiday, they kept their time-honoured traditions. They donned their new lightweight spring wardrobe and went out into the icy fields to commemorate the new year. Since it was freezing cold, it’s no surprise that many of them fell sick and some of them died.
The old New Year’s day becomes a day of jokes
Those who had survived the first January New Year’s observance probably felt pretty silly about wearing their spring frocks out in the winter and from then on they wore nice warm coats. Maybe to make themselves feel a bit less foolish, they decided to play tricks on the people who still thought the new year started in the spring. Instead of giving a traditional gift of fish, they would attach a small fish to the back of someone’s clothes with a hook. These little fish were normally not very fresh and with the clothes of that time being more ample, the fish could go unnoticed for a while. When the person smelled something fishy and finally found the little stinker stuck to his back, someone would announce “It’s a poisson d’avril!” or “It’s an April fish!” and this is why these little jokes are called “April fish”.
Thankfully, the French children today use paper fish and stick them on unsuspecting backs with tape. For the adults, there are “April fish” stories in the media. Just as in the US and UK, the French media likes to print outrageous stories as April Fool’s jokes.
The annual “April Fish” in Nice, France
The city of Nice has its own special April Fool’s joke. Normally there is a cannon shot every day at noon from a hill overlooking the town. (It’s really a firecracker, but it used to be a cannon so they still call it one. You can read more about it here.) This noonday boom alerts the people of Nice that it’s lunchtime and it goes off every day at exactly noon. That is, every day except on April 1st when the “cannon” goes off one hour early and everyone is thrown off schedule. If you are in Nice on April 1st listen carefully after the boom and you might be able to hear a shout from the hilltop – “April Fish!”
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