Happy Poisson d’ Avril

“Devinez qui vous l’envoie” = Guess who sent it to you

Approximately five years ago, while shopping at a “Marché aux Vieux Papiers” (antique paper market) in Paris, France, I purchased a postcard which I found quite amusing. It was a hand-tinted photo card of a gentleman holding a large fish and in the corner it said 1er Avril [April 1st]. There was a goofy feel to the pose, which is what caught my eye.

I was familiar with the French tradition of Poisson d’ Avril [April Fish] in which children tape paper fish cut-outs secretively to friends and family member’s backs as a joke. The “fish” is synonymous with our “fool” on April 1st, although without malice. School children will even try to sneak a fish onto their teacher’s back during school day. However, the postcard I purchased clearly had a friendly feel and was hardly the childhood prank of today.  Fast forward several years and I now have hundreds of Poisson d’Avril postcards in my collection.  I noticed that many of the postcards are sent to friends, family and children as well, often saying “Devinez vous?” (“Guess who?”).  I suspect, April 1st was an excuse for many people to send a “Thinking of You” card.

After much research (which is still incomplete), I believe I have uncovered the correlation between romance and Poisson d’Avril. Maquereau in French means “mackerel” – the fish depicted on the postcards. It also has another meaning in slang – “matchmaker”. This may be attributed to the unique breeding behavior of the male maquereau in spring in which male fish will often lead females to other males for mating. I’m not entirely sure how this relates to the cheesy postcards, but I get the feeling that it is an excuse for couples who are too shy to approach one another to declare their interest.

As early the 16th century, when a new calendar starting the new year on January 1st instead of April 1st was adopted [a topic for another day], there was a tradition of giving small gifts on April 1st in honor of the historical “New Year Day”. Around the turn-of-the-20th-century, shops in Paris carried decorated papier mâché fish boxes from small sizes (for jewelry and candies) to large sizes (for umbrellas, etc.). Chocolatiers made molded chocolate fish wrapped in fancy foil. You will still find fish candies for sale at all of the chocolatiers around April 1st in France.

From my research and collecting of April 1st postcards, French Poisson d’Avril cartes postales lost popularity prior to WWII and contemporary April 1st postcards are hard to find. After World War I, the tinted photo postcards slowly were replaced with illustrated fish postcards.

April 1st postcards were far more popular in France than any other country. Those depicting fish and/or having a romantic theme seem to be restricted to France. I currently own over 400 Poisson d’Avril postcards. If you are interested, they are all uploaded to my Flickr account (click the thumbnail below):

Poisson d'Avril: My Collection

My research is far from complete and I would love to hear your memories or ideas about April 1st history and postcards from any country.  I would also love to hear about other April 1st traditions.

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