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Where Did April Fool’s Day Come From?

The origin of April Fool’s Day is unclear. The most popular theory is that when the Catholic church adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, it shifted the New Year from April 1 to January 1. Many continued to celebrate the New Year on April 1 anyway, and those that did were dubbed “April fools.”

Another, lesser-known theory, is that the first mention of April Fools comes from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the story “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Scholars have struggled to confirm this, however. Mentions of similar prankster traditions crop up outside the anglophone world as well.

  • Flanders: A Flemish poet in 1561 mentions a nobleman who sends his servants on foolish errands every April 1
  • Netherlands: April Fools’ Day is attributed to the Dutch victory at Brielle over Spanish Duke Ávarez de Toledo in 1572
  • Britain: John Aubrey mentions the “Fooles holy day” in 1686; in 1698, people were tricked into going to “see the Lions washed” at the Tower of London
  • Poland: prima aprillis (April first in Latin) traditions allegedly go back for centuries in Poland
  • France: the French poet Pierre Michault refers to the poisson d’avril (French for “fish of April” or April Fish) in 1466, possibly the first mention in France

How the pranking tradition first originated and where are unknown, but many countries around the world celebrate some form of April Fool’s Day.

Learn more about the traditions of francophone countries by reading Carnival Traditions in Belgium – Binche, Malmedy, and Aalst.

The Origins of the French Poisson d’Avril

In France, Belgium, Switzerland, and other French-speaking countries, people celebrate poisson d’avril on April 1. Friends or family members will surreptitiously stick a paper fish on someone’s back and tease them without them knowing why. Once the person discovers the fish, the joker exclaims, “Poisson d’avril!” The media also partake in the joking, by running fake and outrageous news stories.

Like many other April Fool’s traditions, the origins of poisson d’avril are unclear. It’s thought that the first mention of took place in 1466 by the poet Pierre Michault, as mentioned above. By 1718, the dictionary of the Académie Française defined “giving an April fish” as convincing someone to do a useless task so you could mock them.

Why Do They Use a Fish?

One reason behind the fish appears to be linked to religion. April 1 was often associated with Easter and the end of Lent. Fish was typically part of the meal for breaking the Lenten fast and thus considered significant. Another theory is that April 1 was usually either the opening or closing of the fishing season. Consequently, people would stick a herring on the backs of fishermen to mock them – either for the over-abundance of fish on opening day or because they weren’t allowed to fish anymore.

fishing zone sign
Attribution: photo by OliBac shared under under a CC BY 2.0 license via Flickr

Poisson d’Avril Today

However the tradition started, it continues today. The most common prank is still placing a fish on someone’s back. But francophones started adapting the British and American April Fool’s traditions, by pulling other types of pranks.

This year, for example, many French teachers in quarantine lockdown sent their students fake assignments and false letters saying this school year is postponed until next year. Some media outlets felt that, given the circumstances with the coronavirus pandemic and widespread misinformation, it wouldn’t be appropriate to publish fake stories on April 1 this year. Others, however, decided that a good laugh is exactly what everyone needs right now.

Interested in French culture? Read about 9 Differences Between French and American Schools.

The Belgian newspaper La Libre announced that the Flemish community in Belgium was moving poisson d’avril to May 1 instead of April 1, while the Belgian francophone community had chosen May 2, since that’s the international day of tuna. French newspaper La Voix du Nord published a story purporting that Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt were secretly getting married in Lille.

We Could All Use Some Lighthearted April Fool’s Humor Right Now

The media outlets that decided to do a poisson d’avril this year indeed kept the jokes light, wanting to spread some humor and not misinformation. Playing harmless pranks on friends and loved ones is a long tradition, whether as poisson d’avril in France or prima aprillis in Poland. While this year we might have less to joke about, it’s important to keep our spirits high. And if taping a paper fish on your kids’, parents’, or housemates’ backs makes you smile a little, then why not?

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Welcome to All Abroad

Thanks for stopping by! My name's Courtney. I'm a travel and politics writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I write about travel, culture, expat life, and food & wine - infusing a bit of politics into each. Learn more about this blog here.