Just like in the United States, everyone needs to be careful when April 1st comes around. It’s a day when practical jokers get to run wild, even the French.
In France, April Fool’s day is best known for the poisson d’avril, the April Fish which can be dated as far back as 1564. The history of the poisson d’avril is obscure and highly contested, but most agree that its origins come from the 16th century. One accepted version is that King Charles XIV of France changed the calendar, making January 1st the start of the new year (as it is today) instead of the end of March. Due to lack of cell phones and internet, news of this change moved very slowly. The French who lived in the rural areas were the last to hear of the change. People who hadn’t heard the news, or who stubbornly still celebrated the New Year during the week of March 25th-April 1st, were often on the receiving end of tricks. They would have a paper fish stuck to their backs called the poisson d’avril, which is the term today for April Fool’s Day.
Today, the prank is most common among school children. When I was in Grenoble, my little host brother never got tired of sticking a paper fish to my back when I wasn’t looking (or even when I was).
The origin of using a fish is also unclear. One explanation is that the 1st of April generally came during Lent, when Christians were not allowed to eat meat. Fish was acceptable though and was also offered as a gift of the New Year. Besides paper fish, chocolate fish are also very popular on this day and can be found in most patisseries in France. So while the kids may stick a paper fish on your back, the adults may exchange these sweet treats instead of a trick.
So Happy Poisson D’Avril! Now you know that if you want to have an especially international April Fool’s Day, just craft some paper fish to stick on your friends’ backs when they’re not looking…