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…