Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Fish of April

When we arrived in the classroom where we had our French lessons I always felt the presence of the children who were there before us. Apparently part of their school day was for music. There was a small drum set pushed into a corner and in the back of the room some music books. Some time between their departure and our arrival I suspect the teacher tried to erase all traces of the children - no papers, no doodles. The board was wiped clean. Even so, there would be little clues what their day was like.

On the evening of April 1 I noticed a small pile of paper fish cutouts the kids had made. They were on a table in the corner. Some were marked "Poisson d'Avril." I discovered that in France it is a tradition to pin or tape a small paper fish, like a "Kick Me" sign, on the back of someone else as an April Fool's joke. In general if you've pranked someone and they fall for it on April 1 you can yell "Poisson d'Avril!" literally Fish of April. As they say here:
bizarre. What is this all about, I wondered.

My research turned up a lot of confusing explanations as to how this all came to be. The most common one was something I found on a
French website which lays the whole thing at the feet of King Charles IX. The story goes that the calendar year used to begin on April 1 but in 1564 Charles switched it to January 1. In those days it was a tradition to exchange gifts at the beginning of the year. When the calendar changed, some jokers thought it would be funny to also exchange gifts in April as well. Wacky gifts.

Why a fish? It depends on whom you ask. One site said that April comes at the end of Lent when traditionally no one ate meat, only fish. Because of that, people used to give fishes to each other. (Hey, don't judge. They didn't have cable in those days.) Another source claimed it was because the moon in early April was in the zodiac position of Pisces. Yet another explained that the icthyological gesture was inspired by the fact that in early April it is forbidden to fish because they are breeding and are too vulnerable and dumb (when were fish smart?) and easy to catch.

Yet another - and in my opinion, the most lame ass - explanation offered by a British author who said the fish was because the baffled face of the victim of a joke has the bug-eyed look of a hooked carp.

But it all seems to circle back to Charles IX. Many citations say it sprung from his decision to adopt the Gregorian Calendar, which puts the beginning of the year at January. Except there is a little problem with that. The Gregorian Calendar was formally launched in 1582, not 1565 and by then Charles IX was dead. (He died in 1574, eight years before the Vatican rollout.) The only thing that might save this explanation, say Charles theorists, is that the idea of a January-first calendar had been around since the Council of Trent in 1545.Maybe the king decided to adopt it early, to show up the rest of Europe. It would not have been the first time the French launched a global trend.

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