Reader question: Can you explain France’s poisson d’avril tradition?

Yes, we can. But you might think we’re joking…

Reader question: Can you explain France's poisson d’avril tradition?
Photo: Jean-Pierre Muller / AFP)

Question: What do the French mean when they talk about a ‘poisson d’avril’? Why do we have fish in April?

Hear poisson d’avril, think April Fool – in short, it’s the French version of the practice of playing jokes on April 1st.

French school children spend April 1st creating fish out of paper and sticking them to their classmates’ backs, while French media outlets may well indulge in a terrible joke story on April 1st (and yes, The Local has been known to do this too).

You’ll also see some shops selling chocolate fish, celebrating poisson d’avril, to give as gifts – maybe to any child who has successfully stuck a paper one to your back.

Common consensus for the origin of this day of practical jokes in France links it to the Edict of Roussillon, signed by Charles IX in 1564, to change the date of the new year from March 25th to January 1st, bringing the French calendar in line with that of the Holy Roman Empire. The rest of Christian Europe had to wait until Pope Grégoire XV in 1622 to catch up.

However, giving gifts between March 25th and April 1st was an established tradition in France – inherited from a Roman custom in honour of the goddess Strena. 

This was maintained despite the change in calendar – traditions are hard to break – but the gifts were now given as a joke. Over the centuries, that joke gift to mark the now fake new year has turned into a practical joke.

The poisson bit of the tradition in France is harder to pin down. There are lots of theories as to how this expression originated. 

One says it comes from April being a bad month for fishing, so claiming to eat one that month had to be a joke. Another ties it to the Dunkerque Carnival tradition, which starts with dried herrings being thrown from the City Hall to a crowd gathered below. 

Whatever its origin, April Fool’s Day in France today is inextricably linked to fish, notably the paper one your children might try to sneakily stick to your back so they can later shout poisson d’avril at you. But at least there are those chocolate ones…

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How to make the most of France’s ‘night of museums’ this weekend

More than 3,000 French museums will stay open long past their bedtimes on Saturday May 14th for the 18th Long Night of Museums.

How to make the most of France's 'night of museums' this weekend

The annual event takes place on the third Saturday in May each year in towns and cities across the whole of Europe. There are temporary exhibitions, themed guided visits, musical entertainment, lectures, concerts, food tasting, historical reconstructions and re-enactments, and film projections. Best news of all, almost everything is free. 

Here’s The Local’s guide to getting the most out of the night:

Plan, plan, then throwaway the plan

Consult the online programme and map out your route. A little preparation will make the night much easier – 3,000 museums will be open long into the night in France, and you don’t want to waste hours standing on a bridge arguing about where to go next. 

The site has suggestions for major cities, including Lyon, Dijon, Bourges, Strasbourg, Lille, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Marseilles. And four museums that have been closed to the public for years – Musée de Cluny in Paris, the Musée de Valenciennes, the Forum antique de Bavay in Nord and the Musée départemental Albert-Khan in Boulogne-Billancourt – are reopening on the night.

So, decide where you’re going beforehand – then feel free to dump your carefully plotted plan in a bin when you overhear someone else talking about this extraordinary thing they have discovered and go with the flow.

Be patient

When you are consulting the official website, try not to scream. You have to navigate a map rather than a traditional programme format – though, at least, this year it’s broken down in to French regions, which is marginally less frustrating.

It is actually much easier if you know the specific museums you are interested in visiting, as they have individual programmes of events. But half the fun of a night like this is visiting somewhere you’ve never been before.

Wear comfortable shoes and travel light

Wear shoes for the long haul rather than the first impression. There will be distances to cover and you might even find yourself dancing in the middle of a museum. 

And blisters are never a good partner with great art. Leave your skateboard and shopping trolley at home, they will just prove a nuisance when you are going through security checks.

Come early – or late – to avoid endless queues

Arriving at the Louvre at 8pm is always going to mean a giant queue. And nothing ruins a night quicker than spending most of it standing in an unmoving line. Try to escape peak times at the major museums – but check they’re not doing something interesting that you don’t want to miss – hip hop dance classes in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing, for example…

Go somewhere you’ve never been to before

Do a lucky dip. Pick somewhere you’ve never heard of and know nothing about. What about the Musée de Valenciennes, which reopens after years of being closed to the public, for example. Its giving visitors the chance to see its fine art under ultraviolet light – which will reveal things you wouldn’t normally see.

Or you could delve deep into the Aude Departmental Archives, in Carcassonne, and discover the amazing life stories of some of the region’s historical figures

Make it social

Gather the troops, this is a night for multi-generations of family and friends. Art, history and culture, is very much a shared experience and you can usually find something that everyone loves – or hates.

Plan a pitstop

You will always need refreshing and wouldn’t a night of culture be wonderfully enhanced by a delicious picnic on the banks of the Seine, if you’re in Paris. 

Your mind will need a little pause from all the intellectual overload. Find a spot, listen to the music (there’s always music from somewhere) and watch the Bateaux Mouches go by as you eat a baguette with some good local cheese and some saucisson.