How much did you know about le POISSON D’AVRIL?

Judith Frattini (April 2006)

This is not a fish. Well, fish do come into it. For centuries the new year had commenced on April 1st for many cultures, from Hindu to Roman, but in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII decreed that a new calendar (since known as the Gregorian calendar) be used and January 1st should be the first day of the year. He also altered the order of the months and understandably some confusion reigned.

Many people didn’t learn of these changes and continued to celebrate the new year on April 1st, offering gifts that day as they had always done, thus becoming the butt of jokes by their more informed neighbours. In France, traditionalists simply refused to accept the new calendar and they were made fun of when they insisted on celebrating the new year on April 1st. Some of their compatriots would send them on a ‘fool’s errand’ or they’d be tricked into believing a piece of nonsense to be true. Some historians say that it was in fact King Charles IX in 1564 who was responsible for this new calendar in France. His subjects protested violently against the change (plus ça change) and continued to exchange New Year gifts on April 1st, and it became customary to play tricks and give amusing presents.

Children in France still laboriously cut out paper fish, backed with 2-sided sticky tape, and surreptitiously hook the fish onto the clothes of unsuspecting targets. The origin of the fish tradition is obscure but probably rooted in the Zodiacal calendar. Pisces (the fishes) reigns from February 20th to March 20th, and thereafter it’s Aries (the ram) which heralds Spring. So on April 1st using fish, and crying “poisson d’avril” when someone had been tricked, mocked the poor souls who didn’t know their calendar.

It wasn’t until 1751 that Great Britain accepted the Gregorian calendar and from then on All Fool’s Day was celebrated in England and in the American colonies too. Pranks are still popular with newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, so watch out for a plethora of false but harmless information!

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