Fish Pranks


Although April's Fool's Day has come and gone, this is a fun read regardless. I pranked my mom on April 1st when I was a kid, but I don't recall using fish. I applaud her for playing along with me and laughing. You are the best, mom! I was going to prank someone yesterday, but I just ran out of time. I'll just have to save it for next year. (wink, wink, muhahaha!)

Funny gifts or gag gifts are not only great on special occasions like Christmas, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, or one's birthday, but they also bring joy and laughter to any day of the year.

Ha, ha... now this is hilarious!  

To find out how pranksters celebrate the day in France, read on. The French word for prankster is "farceur" or "farceuse" (for a female prankster), and the word for "laugh" is "rire."

Why Fish Pranks are a Trademark of April Fools' Day in France

"Allow me to address to you / With my deepest tenderness / This beautiful fish, fresh and discreet / To which I have confided my secret," says this April Fish card in French. API/GETTY IMAGES
IF YOU FIND YOURSELF IN France on April 1, don’t be surprised if something seems fishy. Perhaps you receive a chocolate or pastry shaped like a cod, or maybe you discover a paper haddock affixed to your back, prompting laughter and exclamations of "poisson d'avril" from those around you. There's no need for alarm; you've simply become part of the longstanding French tradition of April Fool's Day, known as poisson d'avril or "April Fish." According to Jack Santino, a folklorist and Professor Emeritus at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, the origins of April Fool's Day are shrouded in mystery, with each country attributing it to its own historical events. However, France stands alone with its aquatic-themed customs. Historians have proposed various theories about the origins of this piscine tradition, including connections to pagan rites surrounding the vernal equinox, Christian festivities, a calendar change in the 16th century, and the commencement of the French fishing season.
Certain historians trace the roots of this tradition to the ancient Roman pagan festival of Hilaria, which celebrated the vernal equinox with festivities like games and masquerades. Santino suggests that ancient Roman and Celtic observances of the vernal equinox likely served as precursors to modern April Fool's Day customs. According to Santino, these connections to past rituals offer a cultural framework for contemporary practices. However, he believes that the association with fish may not directly stem from these ancient traditions. Some propose that Christianity plays a role in this aspect. The "ichthus" fish, an ancient Hellenic Christian acronym representing "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior," is now widely recognized as a symbol of Christianity but initially served as a clandestine identifier of Christian affiliation. Additionally, during the forty-day Lenten period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, meat consumption is traditionally prohibited, leading to an increased consumption of fish as a substitute protein.
The depiction of Lent from 1893 shows how long fish has been a major part of the Christian tradition. WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE/ALAMY


As Lent typically concludes around April 1, it's fitting that celebrations incorporating fish imagery would symbolize the end of the fasting period. Some speculate that "poisson d'avril" might derive from a corruption of the word "passion," as in the "passion of the Christ," into "poisson," the French term for fish. However, despite these cultural connections, Santino notes that there is no concrete evidence supporting this association with Christianity.

Another theory, the popular calendar change hypothesis, though widely discredited by contemporary experts, continues to surface. In 1564, King Charles IX of France implemented the Edict of Roussillon, which shifted the beginning of the calendar year from varying dates between March 25 and April 1 (varying among provinces) to January 1.

Now paper, people used to hook real dead fish onto the backs of fishermen. JACK GAROFALO/GETTY IMAGES

Pope Gregory XIII standardized January 1 as the commencement of the calendar year across the entire Christian realm through the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. It could be speculated that those who continued to recognize April 1 as the start of the new year, rather than January 1, were the individuals targeted as "April Fools," thereby becoming subject to pranks. However, references to "poisson d'avril" precede the 1564 edict, appearing in print as early as 1466, which refutes this explanation.

Another plausible theory involves literal fishing. As daylight extends in the northern hemisphere during spring, the onset of spring also signifies the commencement of the fishing season in France, typically around the first day of April. Some suggest that the prank of presenting a fish was intended to mock fishermen who, at this time, either lacked fish or experienced an extraordinary abundance. They would either need to wait for spawning fish to reach legal size before catching them or, once the time arrived, contend with an overwhelming rush of fish migrating upstream. According to this theory, actual herrings were the initial sea creatures of choice for the prank, with the trick being to affix a dead herring to a fisherman's back and observe how long it took for them to notice, as the fish gradually emitted a foul odor throughout the day.

The tradition of "poisson d'avril" took a different direction in the early 20th century when friends and loved ones exchanged decorative postcards adorned with elaborate fish imagery. The majority of these cards featured amusing rhymes that were often flirtatious and suggestive but presented in a humourous manner. While most cards depicted young women, flowers, and fish, occasional references to the ocean, other marine creatures, and advancements in technology such as airplanes and automobiles could also be found. Pierre Ickowicz, the chief curator of the Château de Dieppe Museum in Normandy, which houses a significant collection of these cards, notes that the tradition of exchanging cards seemed to fade shortly after World War I. The museum's collection comprises 1,716 postcards.

Poisson d’avril postcards from the 1920s and ’30s were full of flirtation and fish. WELLCOME COLLECTION/PUBLIC DOMAIN; FOTOTECA GILARDI/GETTY IMAGES

In modern-day France, the primary participants in "poisson d'avril" are typically schoolchildren, who take pleasure in affixing paper fish to the backs of their siblings, classmates, and educators. While the methods of execution have evolved over time, ranging from using dead herrings as accessories to exchanging postcards to the current practice of paper fish, the mischievous spirit of the tradition has remained constant.

Jack Santino reflects on this tradition, stating, "The concept of playing pranks on others might seem bothersome if it weren't socially sanctioned on certain occasions." He suggests that periods of transition often coincide with rites of passage during which societal norms can be temporarily disregarded. "If 'poisson d'avril' is associated with the arrival of spring," Santino suggests, "I would interpret it as a celebratory transition into a new phase of time, where part of the celebration involves engaging in activities typically deemed unacceptable."

Today, the celebration of "poisson d'avril" extends beyond France, with observances also found in neighbouring Italy and in Quebec, Canada, a former colony of France. Although its exact origins remain elusive, the tradition of the fish endures. Whether or not one chooses to partake in trickster behavior on April 1st, there is undoubtedly a collective sense of relief that the practice no longer involves the use of actual, malodorous fish—a historical aspect that, hopefully, doesn't inspire any mischievous ideas.

via atlasobscura


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