All About the French’s Favorite April Fools’ Joke: Poisson d’Avril
Our modern day calendar hasn’t changed much since the first 12-month calendar was invented thousands of years ago, but there was a 12-year period in French history where the calendar we know today, the Gregorian calendar, was replaced with a calendar with some pretty big changes. (Stick with me here. I’ll tell you about the French’s April Fools’ joke that is pretty funny after a quick story!)
This calendar was called the French Republican Calendar. It began in October 1793 and renamed the twelve months of the year after natural elements, and dedicated every day, normally dedicated to a Christian saint, after a seed, tree, flower, fruit, animal, or tool. If today was March 28th, 1794 we would be in Germinal or “The Month of Sprouting Buds” and instead of celebrating Saint Gontran we would be celebrating the Jonquille, or “daffodil.”
While the “Month of Sprouting Buds” is more poetic than “March” or “April,” all of these changes were extremely confusing for the French population so it didn’t last very long.
But 200 years earlier there was another confusing calendar change that did stick around, and it was the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which for many countries changed the first day of the year from April 1st to January 1st.
When the calendar changed, those who still celebrated the new year on April 1st instead of January 1st were considered “fools,” and thus began the tradition of giving trick gifts or playing jokes on April 1st on said fools. Though some historians dispute this story, many believe this is the origin of April Fools’ Day or Poisson d’Avril in French.
For any of you who have a little experience with French you might be confused by the word poisson, or fish, in the title of the French version of April Fools’ day. To be honest the origin of the name is disputed, but it has inspired the most popular trick on Poisson d’Avril and it’s to secretly place a little paper fish (un petit poisson en papier) on the back of people you pass by. If you finish the day with a paper fish on your back you’ve been tricked, and probably had some people laughing behind your back at some point earlier in the day, but if you stuck a few fish on your friends’ backs without getting any on your own you get to be pretty proud of yourself.
If you don’t love the tricks of April Fools’ Day, there is also a nicer version of this tradition that was popular a few decades ago where you can give a card with a fish on it to wish love, friendship, and happiness to someone you care about. This year I’m going to be spending Poisson d’Avril with my boyfriend in our tiny apartment, so it’s going to be a little difficult to somehow get the fish on his back without him noticing— but I’m still going to try. If you want to join me in my attempt to have a little fun at home, you can print out the poisson I drew to try to prank your roommates or family. You can also print out the Poisson d’Avril Happiness Card I made if you would rather wish love, friendship and happiness to those you care about.