Pretty fishy, April...

When I was growing up in French-speaking Switzerland, there was a tradition every first of April.

We’d draw a fish on a piece of paper, and then do our best to stick it to someone’s back without their noticing. If they did notice after the fact, we’d point and laugh, and shriek, “April fish!” (Poisson d’avril!)

True story. The French version of April Fool’s Day inexplicably involves secretly decorating your friends with Scotch tape and flounders, and while I’ve known about this since the 1980s, for some reason it’s only just occurred to me to question why.

Up until today, this was fitting in comfortably with my acceptance that the fat man in the red suit brought me presents, the winged fairy would pay cash for my stray teeth, and the chocolate bunny scattered brightly-colored eggs around the house for me to find. It was best not to question the system, because doing so would have meant fewer rewards for me, and, well, I didn’t want that.

But I’m older, creakier, and crankier now, and I want some facts. I want knowledge about these mysterious fish and their link to the pranks of my youth.

But as it turns out, it’s not exactly clear. The solid three minutes of Googling I just did turned up one possible explanation/possible legend, courtesy of

The King of France in the mid-1500s, Charles IX, decreed that instead of starting a new year on April 1st (as apparently it previously had), it would instead start on January 1st. Controversy! Drama! Not everyone was happy about this turn of events, and some continued to celebrate New Year’s Day in April. These traditionalists were in turn mocked by the new, hip, January-loving crowd.

In parallel, the 1st of April coincided with the end of Lent, when Christians weren’t allowed to eat meat, but were allowed to eat fish (hey, like pescetarians today! Represent!) Thus, “false fish” began being used to mark the victims, those fools who refused to accept the changing times.

Now I have no idea if this is true, but I love this story. I’ve always tended to think of sixteenth-century Frenchmen as rather serious, but it turns out they were a hoot and a holler! “Oh, haha, I left a fake fish outside your auberge! You are such an imbécile!”

Also, since I just landed in Geneva for the weekend, I better check and make sure I don’t have anything stuck to my back.