Happy April Fool’s Day from a Century Ago

April 1, 2009

April Fool's Day Holiday Celebration in France, as Seen in a 1908 Vintage Postcard

Happy April Fool’s Day! We thought we’d highlight a charming French custom concerning this holiday which — like Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, George Washington’s birthday and May Day — has waned in importance as cultural norms have shifted. This charming French postcard, sent in 1908, celebrated April Fool’s Day as it was practiced in late-Victorian France — not with pranks per se but with reminders featuring fish, which are supposed to be good for one’s memory. Lavishly embossed, with four golden rosettes framing a finely detailed fish attachment which is in a clever blue forget-me-not flowered frame, this antique postcard depicts a somewhat surprised-looking fish saying: “Si vous devinez qui l’envoie, / Votre coeur sera dans la joie.” Loosely translated, it reads: “If you guess the sender, your heart will be joyous.”

April Fool's Day Holiday Celebration in France, c. 1915

This April Fool’s Day message, as translated by our own personal French correspondent, Deborah Mends, has an air of intrigue to it, reading: “Pretty April Fool’s Day Fish, messenger so discreet / Of he who sends this to you, guard well the secret.“ In the Victorian era, floriography, or the “language of flowers,” was fashionable. Flowers were used to communicate feelings which otherwise were unspoken. It’s no accident that this fish rests on a bed of forget-me-nots, which symbolized true love, and violets, which symbolized faithfulness.

King Charles IX of France, c. 1572Legend has it that the New Year in France always began on April 1. As King Charles IX of France discovered in traveling his kingdom, the date of the New Year varied depending on the diocese. For example, the New Year began at Christmas in Lyon and on 25 March at Vienne. Or on March 1. Or at Easter. With the Edict of Roussillon, issued in 1564, it was decreed that the New Year would henceforth begin on January 1.


April Fool's Day Souvenir Postcard

Not everyone appreciated having the New Year’s date changed; the French April Fool’s Day holiday dates back to 1564 and King Charles’ edict. While the precise origin of the use of fish symbolism remains obscure (perhaps a Christian ichthus?), it’s said that French subjects who didn’t appreciate the January 1 date continued to celebrate around April 1. Other people who adapted to the new date made fun of the April 1st followers, using the occasions to play tricks on them and giving the April 1st followers false gifts. In this way, the tradition of the fish (“poisson d’avril,” or “April fish”) began. The day of fools also has been interpreted as meaning “the day for those who don’t accept reality or who see things differently.” Which is probably why you’re reading Pajamadeen — because you wanted something different.

Read about another lost holiday, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, or browse thousands of vintage postcards.

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