Happy April Fish Day

As the youngest of three siblings, the arrival of April Fools' day was never exactly a reason to celebrate. As a kid, I recall awakening -- breathless, disoriented, in a cold sweat -- to the sight of my sister bleeding-out on my bedroom floor, a butcher knife jutting out from her armpit. (Yes, that happened.) My brother, not interested in "Harold & Maude" theatrics, would opt instead for pain, cackling "April Fools" as he smacked me upside the head with his palm, the stone from his high school ring turned inward to underscore the joy of the occasion. Hitting me didn't exactly qualify as a prank I'd foolishly try to explain. Judging by his laughter, it fit the bill for him.

On this day devoted to pranking, I can at least take a bit of solace in knowing that I'm not the only fool. Cultures across the globe have long celebrated a "Fools Day" at the onset of spring to facilitate the humiliation of the weak, the young, and the naive.

Had we grown up in Lisbon, my brother would have thrown fistfuls of flour in my face on my way to catch the bus. The "Jackass" gang didn't invent this 'hilarious' gag -- it's the traditional April Fools' Day prank in Portugal which is celebrated there just before Lent.

And I can hardly complain about the passing indignity of playing "a great new card game" called Fifty-Two Pick-Up with my sister. Had I grown up in Scotland I'd have been suckered into embarking on some time-consuming errand that would have ruined the whole day:

"[The Scottish] developed a tradition known as 'hunting the gowk' (gowk being a term for a cuckoo bird). To be sent on a 'gowk hunt' meant to be sent on a fool's errand. The victim would be asked to deliver a note that, unbeknownst to him, read, "Never laugh, never smile, Hunt the gowk another mile." Recipients of this note would duly redirect the poor victim somewhere else until they had been run all over town."

Had I come of age in London in the Fifties, I would have been tricked by the BBC into believing that spaghetti grows on trees. (The best prank ever.)

But mostly, I'm thankful I didn't suffer the indignity of coming of age in France, where April Fools' day is known as April Fish or "Poisson d'Avril." On the first of April, the French traditionally attach a dead fish to an unexpecting victims' back -- a smelly, decomposing 'kick me' sign, only with scales and lifeless eyes. My bratty siblings would have undoubtedly had a field day duct-taping lox to the back of my Ocean Pacific shirt. Thankfully the bizarre April Fish tradition has evolved -- the schoolyard bully generally tapes a picture or drawing of a fish to the pale, stuttering kid's back these days.

"Poisson d'Avril" is believed to have its origins in the 1500s when French commoners became confused by the country's adoption of a new calendar:

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 traveled 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.

The association with fish is a bit mysterious, but likely has its origin in the plentitude of young and easy-to-capture fish found in their rivers in April. Others speculate that the fish prank has its basis in Astrology since the Pisces cycle occurs just before the onset of Spring. Whatever, the origin, the April Fish is still celebrated in France and in parts of Italy, Quebec and Romandy.

In addition to enabling the traumatization of the weak, "Poisson d'Avril" has facilitated the creation of some pretty fantastic artwork, often in the form of postcards. So in honor of all the the youngest siblings out there, here are some "Poisson d'Avril" highlights. Happy April Fish Day!