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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Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?