April Fools’ Day or France’s April Fish: Its Origins

April Fools’ Day did not originate with Geoffrey Chaucer’s supposed mention of April 1 and foolishness in The Canterbury Tales published in 1392. Exactly how 1 April and foolishness began remains somewhat obscure. However, one of the most popular versions of how the holiday began is attributed to France.*

April Fools' Day or Poisson d'Avril, from Crunch Hearts

Postcard celebrating Poisson d’avril. Courtesy of Crunchy Hearts.

What is known is that the holiday appears to have been mentioned in 1508 by French poet Eloy d’Amerval who referred to “poisson d’avril.” Poisson d’avril literally translates to “April Fish.” However, poisson d’avril actually means April fool and “some think that this refers to the fool’s allowing himself to be caught like a fish, but others say it is a corruption of Passion d’Avril (April passion or suffering), and that the custom of sending people about on fruitless errands arose from an old Morality, or Miracle Play, representing Christ sent backward and forward between Herod and Pilate.”[1] Two other explanations are that in France, the mackerel (known as poisson d’avril) was “easily caught [in April] by deception, singly, as well as in great shoals,”[2] and:

“In France, even the highest dignitaries condescended to take part in the sport. It is related that a high ecclesiastic gathered a grew crowd to hear him preach on the first of April, and when he had ascended the pulpit, made the sign of the cross, cried out, ‘April Fool!’ and went down again.”[3]

Added to Chaucer’s mention of foolishness, d’Amerval’s mention of fish, and the other explanations as to the day’s origins there is also the fact that in France in the Middle Ages, the new year was celebrated on different days depending upon the person’s diocese. Although most French dioceses celebrated the New Year on the 25th of March (and the celebration lasted for a week ending on the 1st of April), some dioceses celebrated it at the beginning of the year, some at Christmas time, and still others at Easter.

During this time, Charles IX was King. He decided that the date for the New Year needed to be standardized. To achieve this standardization he produced the Edict of Roussillon in 1564 and it set the date for the New Year as 1 January with the edict being first applied on 1 January 1567. Unfortunately, not everyone liked the edict or the new date. The people who didn’t like it were stubborn. They refused to abide by the edict and continued to celebrate New Year’s on its old date.

Charles IX of France, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Charles IX of France, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Those who clung to the old dates were unpopular with those who adopted the new date. In addition, fish were given as gifts at New Year‘s and because 1 April also coincided with Lent, meat was not eaten but fish was allowed. Some writers suggest that April Fools’ Day originated because adopters began tricking the non-adopters by sending them on foolish errands, playing practical jokes on them, or attaching fish to their backs, thereby creating France’s poisson d’avril or April Fish Day.

"Keying Up" - The Court Jester, by William Merritt Chase, Courtesy of Wikipedia

“Keying Up” – The Court Jester, by William Merritt Chase, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Despite this explanation for how April Fools’ Day or April Fish began, some people have continued to search for another explanation. One explanation that many people embraced was presented by Joseph Boskin in 1983. Boskin was a professor of history at Boston University. He claimed the Roman Emperor Constantine was arguing with some court jesters as to who could run the country more effectively. According to Boskin, Constantine decided to let one of the jesters try it and thereafter it became an annual event “celebrat[ed] as a day of absurdity.”[4]

The Associated Press (AP) heard about Boskin’s explanation, embraced it, and printed it. A couple of weeks later, however, the AP realized they were the victims of an April Fools’ Day prank and that Boskin’s explanation was bogus, thereby forcing them to run a correction. So, if you do not like my explanation about France and poisson d’avril or if you are still looking for the truth behind April Fools’ Day or April Fish, you might find getting to its origins trickier than the day itself.

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*Other countries also lay claim to originating the holiday. For example, in the Netherlands, the origin of April Fools’ Day is often attributed to the Dutch victory in 1572 at Brielle, where the Spanish Duke Álvarez de Toledo was defeated. 

References:

  • [1] The Young Folk’s Cyclopædia of Games and Sports, 1890, p. 5.
  • [2] Dennie, Joseph, and Hall, John Elihu, The Port Folio, 1813, p. 518.
  • [3] The Young Folk’s Cyclopædia of Games and Sports, p. 5.
  • [4] King Kugel: An April Fools’ History Lesson,” on The Washington Post

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