Spring has officially arrived in Newport, which means April’s annual day of practical jokes is right around the corner and we’re celebrating with a look at the French poisson d’avril. Although every holiday provides us with an excuse to scour our collection of vintage holiday postcards, we take particular enjoyment in our April Fools’ Day selection of French postcards celebrating the April Fish or poisson d’avril.
The tradition of playing pranks on April Fools’ Day has an incredibly long history in most Western countries. Many believe it can be traced back most clearly to the mid-16th century, when various western countries began to move away from the Julian calendar, which had the New Year begin on March 25th. Under that calendar in France, people often visited each other and exchanged gifts on April 1st, the final day of the old calendar’s New Year’s celebrations. When France adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582 and the New Year was moved to January 1st, change was slow to reach the more remote areas of the country and to affect the people who held a firm attachment to the tradition. People began sending fake gifts on April 1st as a joke on those who had previously received their New Year’s gifts on that day. These fake gifts and pranks may have existed before the change to the calendar was made, but this provided a more concrete reference point for many historians.
The April Fool themself is the gullible victim of a prank, whether a child sent on a fool’s errand or an unsuspecting adult, they are the one caught in a practical joke and made into a fool. The name of the fool varies in different regions of the world, with France, Italy, and Belgium preferring the term April Fish. The French poisson d’avril has come to refer to a wide range of ritual pranks with the fool marked by the sign of a fish. French school children often try to prank their classmates and teachers by taping a cutout of a fish on the backs of their clothing, as demonstrated in one of our postcards.
Also in France, confectioners’ windows display chocolate fish on April 1st and friends anonymously send each other humorous postcards imprinted with pictures of fish, much like the ones in our own collection. One of our cards has nothing written on the reverse except the address of the intended recipient and the words, in French, “Guess who?” The front of the card features a girl holding a comically large fish, a common image in French poisson d’avril postcards.
According to Jack Santino, “Poisson d’Avril is still the current term in France, and there the fish is to April Fools’ Day what the shamrock is to Saint Patrick’s Day - the primary symbol of the holiday.” Many folklorists have proposed theories to explain the connection to the fish, but none are particularly convincing. Some believe there are biblical implications, with "poisson" being a corruption of the "passion" of Jesus on the cross, but this theory has not held up to much scrutiny. Angelo de Gubernatis suggested in 1872 that the fish is a phallic symbol, which he felt made the amusement of ladies on this holiday particularly scandalous. At its simplest, the April Fish may refer to the fact that a fish is caught, much like a fool may be caught be a practical joke.
Wherever the April Fish may have originated, it is a firm part of the April 1st tradition in France, as the postcards in our collection delightfully illustrate. We hope you enjoy the coming weekend and entreat you to try not to be a fool, or a fish, this year!
Dundes, Alan. April Fool and April Fish: Towards a Theory of Ritual Pranks in Etnofoor, Jaarg. 1, Nr. 1 (1988), pp. 4-14.
McEntire, Nancy Cassell. Purposeful Deceptions of the April Fool in Western Folklore, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Summer, 2002), pp. 133-151.
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year Holidays and Celebrations in American Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois (1995).
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. New York: The H. Wilson Company (1958).