Le Poisson d’avril is the French version of April Fools’ Day

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In Australia, like in England and the USA, the first day of April is also known as “April Fools’ Day ” but in France it’s the “poisson d’avril” (“April fish”). You see paper fish attached to the backs of unsuspecting people; as well as jokes just like here in Australia.

le poisson d'avril/ April Fools' Day

Read on to discover theories about April Fools’ Day and why people play pranks on this day.


Why are jokes played on this day?

A popular theory is that people play pranks on the first day of April because there were people who didn’t understand that King Charles IX changed the date of the first day of the year from April 1 to January 1 in 1564. So these people were still giving New Year’s presents on 1 April instead of 1 January. To make them understand that they were wrong, or to simply make fun of them, they were given fake New Year’s presents, such as fish.


But the problem with this theory is that April Fools’ Day is celebrated around the world and other countries did not have the same change of New Year’s date as France. In fact, it was only in 1582 via Pope Gregory that the majority of Christian countries in Europe changed their calendars as France did in 1564.


Another theory is that it comes from the Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria, which was celebrated on 25 March. This festival honoured Cybele, an ancient Greek mother of gods, and its celebrations included parades, masquerades and jokes to celebrate the first day after the vernal equinox. For some, the new year began the day after the vernal equinox.


So basically, we’re not sure why we do the jokes on that day.


Poisson d'avril
Lefman, J. Gill, André (Paris, 17–10–1840 – Saint-Maurice, 02–05–1885) L’Éclipse en 1872


But why fish and Poisson d’avril?

Again there are a few theories for this one too. Firstly, some claim that the fish is the astrological sign of the last month of winter (except that the Aries ram comes after the Pisces fish and before April 1). Also, in the past, it was forbidden to fish during the month of April because this month was the period of renewal of fish stocks. So it is thought that perhaps a real fish was put on the backs of fishermen on this day.


Others believe that the fish was chosen because during the Lent period, it is the only meat permitted to be eaten according to Christian beliefs.


In the beginning, “poisson d’avril” meant “a go-between, intermediary” or “the young boy in charge of carrying the love letters of his master“. This meaning dates from 1466. But it was in 1691 that we see the meaning change. It was then that “poisson d’avril” became a “deception, a traditional mystification of April 1st“.  It wasn’t until the 18th century, we find the expression  “donner un poisson à quelqu’un ” (“to give a fish to someone”). The fact that this change in meaning was not seen until 1691 also casts doubt on the theory that it was after King Charles IX changed the date of the New Year in 1564, that year being 127 years before we see the meaning change.


So, in summary, there are several theories for the date and the fish. Either way, it’s a date that you need to beware of fake news and watch your back (for fish being pinned to it)!


For other French events happening in April, check out our what’s on in April article



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