April Fish in France

Les Poissons d'AvrilNow that I’m living here in Paris, I’ve learned that there are several differences between the way that we celebrate certain holidays in North America, and the way that people celebrate those same holidays here in France or throughout the rest of Europe. As the month of March came to a close, I wondered to myself… April first is just around the corner; do people in France celebrate April Fool’s Day, or to them, is it just another day? And if they do celebrate it, how do they do so?

Today I learned that they do celebrate April Fool’s Day in France. The first thing I noticed is that people were walking around with cutout pictures of fish on their backs! This struck me as very strange. The French also participate in tricking people and playing jokes on one another… so in that sense, people do play April Fool’s jokes here in France just like they do in Canada and the United States, and similarly in other western countries.

But the fish got me thinking. Mostly I was thinking, “what the heck is up with the fish?” So I did a bit of research to discover the origin of this day, and why fish would be significant for the French.

The origin of April Fool’s Day

During my research I was surprised to discover that, according to the most popular theory about the origins of April Fool’s Day, the practice of celebrating April Fool’s Day not only takes place in France, but actually began here, several hundred years ago.

April Fish postcardsThe theory states that in 1564 France reformed its calendar, moving the beginning of the year from March 31st to January 1st. People who did not originally embrace this change and continued to celebrate New Years Day as April 1st were considered fools for doing so, and had jokes played on them – they would have paper fish (some sources even say that back then they used real fish – ugh) stuck to their backs. This brought about the name of the holiday, Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish, and started a tradition that has lasted until now (this all being said, I should note for completeness that there are some arguments that April Fool’s Day did not in fact originate in France, but in the United Kingdom).

Interestingly enough, nobody seems to know why the fish became the symbol of this day of playing tricks on people in France. But the tradition continues, even today… kids will secretly tape colored paper fish to the backs of their friends, and when the prank is discovered by their victims, the victim’s friends will shout out, “Poisson d’Avril”, or “April Fish”!

Today in the elementary schools of Paris the teachers were happy to be the victims of the pranks of the French kids, many of them walking around with numerous cutout fish taped to their backs, stuck there by their students. My own kids came home today with fish on their backs, and they even created some cutout fish of their own to pass around – they were excited to join in the French tradition.

So happy April Fish to you!

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8 Responses to “April Fish in France”

  1. Thanks for this insightful post. I have been staring at vintage postcards for April Fool’s Day for years trying to figure this out.

  2. Hi Patricia, May I just point out one thing that everyone seems to miss? The ‘joke’ part is English in origin. The fish thing is wishing your friends well, and wishing them abundance. The most popular people ‘collect’ the most fish stuck to their backs. The opposite side of the fish should have a good luck message or some kind message written on it and the fish itself should be highly coloured. Having a fish or many fish on your back is a sign of how well liked you are and not at all a sign of degradation or a joke.
    I lived in the south of France and the school children there (and their teachers), hadn’t heard of a joke poisson d’avril. This in turn should help with the understanding of the vintage postcards of woman and babies carrying large fish. Why would people send a serious post card with a large fish on it as a joke? In Scotland at New Year we cross someones door offering them a lump of coal, salt and bread (and the aherm Whisky of course) to wish warmth, abundance and friendship. It seem perfectly logical that the fish is the same idea. What do you think?

    • Hi Susan, thanks very much for the comment! The fact that the joke originated in England is something that I did not know. I appreciate your adding some interesting information about the origins of April Fish.

      I hope that you have been having a wonderful month of April so far!

  3. aye wassup ppl I’m felica and I live in asia bye

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Website: Brian Crawford
I'm a Canadian and British dual citizen with an internationally-focused American MBA and an MS in International Project Management from a French business school. I am PMP, ScrumMaster, and ITIL Foundation certified. I'm particularly into travel, writing, and learning about different languages and cultures.