Last Updated on 21st February 2023 by Sophie Nadeau
The 1st April (1er Avril) is known in many countries as ‘April Fool’s Day’ and today remains one of the most widely celebrated non-religious festivals in France. In French, April Fool’s Day is known as ‘Poisson d’Avril’ (April Fish). Here’s a guide on how April Fool’s Day in France is celebrated, as well as a history and the origins of the tradition.
In Scotland, the day is known as April Gowk, while in the UK, the day is known as April Fool’s. April Fool’s directly translated into French is ‘dupe d’avril’. However, as no one actually uses this term, no one would know what you’re talking about!
How did April Fool’s Day Begin?
One of the leading theories as to the origin of April Fool’s Day is that it was actually accidentally invented by the French. The theory goes that, since April used to be at the start of the New Year prior to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, the joke of the 1st April was to shame those who hadn’t yet adopter the Gregorian Calendar.
Prior to the Gregorian Calendar, the Julian Calendar was used. At this time, the start of the New Year was the 25th March as this conformed with Christian festival of the Annunciation. In France, New Year was celebrated for a week, culminating with a special celebration on the 1st of April.
Up until the start of the 1900s, people in France actually used to send each other letters on April Fool’s Day. The postcards would typically wish friends and family good luck and stemmed from the fact that April was actually when New Year’s would be celebrated in France.
Yet another theory suggests that the April Fish Day did not begin with the French but indeed began much earlier, with the Romans.
The idea is that the 1st April festival might be a direct descendant of the Roman festival Hilaria, which was celebrated on November the 3rd and March the 25th. The festival was celebrated by people playing pranks on one another.
Why is it called the Poisson d’Avril (April Fish Day)?
One of the most important questions that people have when it comes to April Fool’s Day in France is ‘why is it called the Poisson d’Avril?’ Well there are actually a few theories as to the origin of the name.
One of the most popular theories as to why the day is named for a fish is that the 1st April once coincided with the end of Lent. During a traditional Lent, the only kind of meat that people are allowed to consume is fish. People would use fake fish to play tricks on their friends!
April Fool’s Day traditions in France
The fish on the back
One of the most common pranks that people play on one another during April Fool’s Day in France is to stick a paper fish on the back of an unsuspecting person. The idea is that the person ends up with a fish stuck to their back for as long as possible.
Once the person has finally discovered that there is a piece of paper in the shape of a fish stuck to their back, the person who put it there has to run away and shout ‘poisson d’Avril, poisson d’Avril’!
Fake marketing hoaxes and media outlet pranks
Whereas sticking a paper fish on someone’s back is quite juvenile, it is not just children who get in on the action when it comes to April Fool’s Day in France. Instead, plenty of adults and even companies get in on a slice of the action.
It is not uncommon for news and media outlets to release outlandish and bizarre stories, only to reveal that they are an April Fool’s trick the following day! Indeed, there are plenty of historical news stories which later turned out to be false.
The Eiffel Tower move: All the way back in 1986, the Le Parisien publication announced that the Eiffel Tower would be moved to Marne La Vallée, i.e. where Disneyland Paris is. Obviously it was just an April Fool’s Day trick!
RATP: The Paris metro network is formidably large and is often touted to be one of the best metro networks in the world. It is run by the RATP, who enjoy switching up the names of métro stations as a ‘Poisson d’Avril’ prank.
Past examples include switching the Opéra metro to Apéro and Quatre Septembre switching to 1er Avril (1st April). If you happen to be in Paris in April, and more specifically on April fish day, keep an eye out for unusual metro announcements or a change of signage!
The yellow chairs: In 2018, the news outlet Nice Matin put out a story proclaiming that the iconic blue chairs of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice were to be replaced with yellow chairs. This caused quite the stir!