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An Englishman’s April fool is a Frenchman’s ‘poisson d’Avril’

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Superstition on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

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This edited article about superstition and customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Poissons d'Avril, picture, image, illustration

A poisson d’Avril or April Fool in France, with two clowns juggling the poissons

If anyone has ever sent you to buy a left-handed screwdriver, a box of straight hooks, a bucket of blue steam or a reel of tartan cotton or told you to pick up a penny glued to the floor – you have something in common with your medieval ancestors. With them it was often a pint of pigeon’s milk or a “History of Eve’s Mother.” What started it all?

As far back as we can trace, people have celebrated New Year by giving presents. Originally New Year’s Day was March 25th, but this date often occurred during Holy Week, so the Church decreed that all merry-making should be postponed until April 1st. Four centuries ago, New Year’s Day was moved to January 1st but the more mischievous citizens, feeling perhaps that the coming of spring still deserved recognition fell into the habit of teasing absent-minded friends by playing practical jokes, or giving mock presents to persuade them that the spring New Year was still in operation. (Similar jokes were played by the ancient Persians, whose new year was also celebrated about the time of the Vernal Equinox, and among Hindus at their spring Huli festival.)

In France an April fool is un poisson d’Avril (an April fish). In Scotland he’s a “gowk” (cuckoo) – the day itself being “Huntogowk Day” from the old joke of “hunting the gowk.” Scottish children still send unsuspecting friends to another friends in the know with a message reading: –

“Don’t you laugh, and don’t you smile,

Hunt the gowk another mile . . .”

The conspirator refuses the note, saying it has been brought to the wrong person, and the ‘Gowk’ must try again . . .

“Fools’ Day” ends at noon. Anyone who plays tricks after this is greeted with some such chant as:

“April Fools’ Day’s past and gone

You’re the fool for making one . . .”

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