My daughter is studying French in school and recently informed me, after pranking me that she’d failed a recent test, that in France, April Fools’ Day is known as “poisson d’avril,” or April Fish. While I have done silly things like hiding a bouncy ball that looks like an eyeball in my kids’ lunch box or setting a place at the table with a serving spoon instead of a regular one, I haven’t done much that’s particularly fishy. Although, for my high school’s senior year prank, the students did somehow manage to invert the skylights in the hallway and fill them with water and goldfish. That’s the closest I’ve gotten.

In France, fishy pranks are the norm, and have been a tradition for several centuries. Apparently, a common prank is to stick a paper fish on the back of an unsuspecting victim. That person is then teased as being the “poisson d’avril.” You can imagine this is popular with school kids.

There are several explanations for why French April Fools’ pranks are fish-based. One is that April marks the start of the fishing season. Herring were the original fish used in pranks, as spring is their spawning time and they would be coming to shore in abundance. Accordingly, a dead herring was hooked onto a fishermen’s back and it was a bit of a game to see how long it took for them to notice. Paper is much kinder.

Other fishy pranks include the giving of fish-shaped pastries or chocolates. We did not have chocolate fish in Easter baskets this year, but there is a connection between the pagan tradition of celebrating the change in season and the vernal equinox and the Christian Easter holiday. The pagan tradition includes the Roman festival of Hilaria, which was marked with games and merriment. The fish connection comes perhaps from the Christian symbolism of the fish for Jesus Christ. This also connects to the Lenten tradition I wrote about a few weeks ago of eating fish during that period of the year.

The April Fools’ tradition also may come from back in 1564 when King Charles IX of France moved the start of the calendar year from April 1 to Jan. 1. Many French refused to accept the new date and continued to hold celebrations on April 1. Those that did adopt the new date called them fools and played tricks on them — hence the ostensible start to the holiday.

While I love fishy heritage and traditions, I’m glad that we don’t stick stinky fish on each others’ backs on April 1 in Maine. But it is a reminder of the change in season and the start of the fishing season for many.

This time of year, many people will be getting ready to get boats back in the water and taking stock of their gear and equipment, hoping for those big catches that lay ahead. This year, however, with the many recent storms, including the one pending as I write this column, we may all need a little humor to address much of the damage to the waterfront infrastructure and what harvesters need to get on and off the water. Spring is ahead and there are many impressive efforts to clean up and rebuild. Maybe some silly traditions and camaraderie around those efforts might find a place in Maine.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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