French Language Blog

April Fools! … The Truth About the French Posted by on Mar 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

April Fools Day is almost here, so start planning your pranks! Have you actually wondered how the tradition started? It is hard to tell where April Fools day was first celebrated because no records about the custom were ever recorded until the eighteenth century. The custom is said to originate from Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands. The most popular theory about the origin of April Fool’s day came from France.

According to the Julian Calendar, January 1 is the first day of the year, but as Christianity spread throughout Europe it was changed to Christmas or Easter because it represented greater theological significance. By the 1500’s the European Calendar system was a mess. Not only were countries running on different calendars but also they had to change new year’s day every year since Easter is tied to the lunar calendar.  The French still celebrated New Year by exchanged gifts on January 1 following the old calendar, and Easter was primarily used for legal and administrative purposes.

Quickly people saw the huge inconvenience in starting the year on Easter, so they started to switch back to January 1. It is common to see both forms of dating listed in the early sixteenth-century French books. In 1563 King Charles IX declared January 1 to be the first day of the year, aligning legal convention with what had become a popular practice. Eighteen year later, Pope Gregory issued a calendar reform throughout Europe which encouraged to start the year in January and creating a leap-year system.

So how does the calendar have anything to do with April Fools day? Once France began using January as the start if the year, many people refused to comply and continued to use the Easter day. Some citizens simply had no idea that the law had changed since they lived in remote villages. Those who were stubborn to use the new system had jokes played on them. Pranksters would stick paper fish to their backs, thus the victims of the prank were called “Poisson d’Avril”, or April Fish. To this day this term is used for April Fools-and so the tradition was born.

There are a few theories to why fish is associated with April Fools Day in France. During the month of April the French streams and rivers are abundant with young fish that had just hatched. These fish are easy to fool with a hook and lure, therefore “Poisson d’Avril”. Other believe the correlation originated from the zodiac sign of Pisces, which falls near April.

No matter how the tradition came about, France is very dedicated to celebrating “Poisson d’Avril”.  Many pâtisseries (bakery shops) sell special poisson (fish) shaped creations out of dough or chocolate. The custom is especially enjoyed by kids who create their own paper fish to fool others and savor the sweet treats.


He who lives without folly isn’t so wise as he thinks. — François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld

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  1. catied:

    Thank you! very interesting.

  2. Anne:

    Good post!