#30 – What’s fishy about Poisson d’Avril?

French April Fool postcard. [Alamy image ref. B86NX4]

There’s an old tradition in France where, on the first day of April, children try to pin a cut-out paper fish shape on an unsuspecting person’s back (I should add that “back” in this context indicates a coat or jacket rather than bare skin!). Whilst I’ve never seen this done in the street, I’m sure it still happens in the home with parents dutifully complying by showing utter surprise at the event.

Compared to the English tradition of trying to trick a school-pal or an adult into looking at something non-existent, for example, and always before midday otherwise you became the the April Fool, the French “April Fish” custom, lasting originally for an entire week, seems quite bizarre.

There’s a good description explaining everything on the “Why Go France” website…

“Although the origins of April Fools is obscure and debated, the most widely accepted explanation actually credits the “holiday” as starting in France. The most popular theory about the origin of April Fool’s Day involves the French calendar reform of the sixteenth century.

The theory goes like this: In 1564 King Charles XIV of France reformed the calendar, moving the start of the year from the end of March to January 1. However, in a time without trains, a reliable post system or the internet, news often travelled slow and the uneducated, lower class people in rural France were the last to hear of and accept the new calendar. Those who failed to keep up with the change or who stubbornly clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate the New Year during the week that fell between March 25th and April 1st, had jokes played on them. Pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were thus called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish – which, to this day, remains the French term for April Fools – and so the tradition was born.” …although this does not explain the earliest recorded association between April 1 and foolishness which can be found in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (1392).

There are many vintage “Poisson d’Avril” postcards to be found at  brocantes – those popular French versions of car-boot sales held in most towns and villages in the warmer and drier months – usually dating from 1900 to the start of the Great War. I used to collect them only if they had the “Semeuse” (Sower ) definitive stamp on the face cancelled by a readable postmark… but that’s another long and foolish collectors’ story!

Licensed by Alamy under my “a la poste” pseudo for a UK magazine with 50,000 circulation, inside editorial, up to 1-page, print and app use for 1 month.

Postscript: Before I sold my collection I photographed a selection of the most visually interesting examples to place on Alamy… and I have an almost total domination of that specific keyworded subject with 15 out of 16 examples on view. Last year, oddly as it turned out, a dozen of my fifteen examples were zoomed – ten in a single session and two the next day… so I awaited with interest the reporting of hopefully several sales by that registered client (only certain registered clients have their zooms recorded for us to see) for a feature on that very specific subject. Oddly, not a single sale was reported during that year.

This year a single example was zoomed and sold as described and detailed above. Was it the same client? Were the previous years zooms / downloads used without reporting and therefore without payment? I feel uncomfortably suspicious about unreported usages which, although not common, should never happen, but, when I also had a dozen zooms over two consecutive days from my citrus fruit wrapper collection – here I have a unique coverage of the subject with 165 out of 165 examples on Alamy – but again not a single reported sale was made… so am I getting a little paranoid, or should I ask Alamy to investigate the client (were they one and the same?) who zooms very specific subjects but then doesn’t apparently use any of them. Do I smell something fishy? Maybe I’m being an April Fool myself!


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