Posts Tagged ‘Poisson d’Avril’

First of April Folly

March 31, 2010


Time Honored Observances of All Fools’ Day.


How Our English, French and German Cousins Celebrate the Day — Washing the White Lions — Barnum’s Famous Hoax, Some Familiar Tricks.

Foolery, sir, doth walk about the orb.
— “Twelfth Night.”

The young American lustily shouts when he has begun the first day of April by playing some joke on Tommy Jones, next door:

April fool! Go to school!
Tell the teacher you’re a fool!

He fondly imagines that he is doing something very original as well as witty. While we will not question the wit of his retort facetious, it may be well enough to inform him that he does not have a monopoly of this kind of humor.

All around the wide world young jokers are having the same sort of fun with their unsuspecting and gullible companions. Little Johnny Bull bellows out his “April fool” in the same familiar phrase, while young Sandy hoots it in Scotch, only he calls it “gouk” instead of “fool.” Little towheaded Fritz runs through the streets of his German village and shouts a guttural rhyme which goes:

Mach d’ Augon zu.

and which means, “April cow, shut your eyes.”

The French boys play jokes too. And when a comrade comes from the harness shop, where he has been sent for “strap oil,” they greet him with cries of “Poisson d’Avril!” which, to give a liberal translation, means that he is a “silly fish,” although literally it means “fish of April.”

Older people of other countries, as well as Americans who are no longer young, take advantage of April fool day to play sill tricks. The Germans go about it in a heavy, clumsy sort of way, but their native characteristics bar out anything which is not conceived in a good humor and which cannot be received in the same way. With phlegmatic earnestness they send each other on fruitless errands and laugh in a hearty, whole souled way when the victim is told that he has made an “April narr” of himself.

The French are apt to make their jokes in a hysterical, impulsive mood, but they are probably more given to this sort of diversion than any other nation on earth. All through France the first day of the vernal month will be marked this year, as it always is, by an outbreak of madcap pranks in which old and young will take part. So common has the custom been for centuries that an important event in French history hinges on an April fool joke which turned out to be no joke at all. Francis, duke of Lorraine, and his wife were captives at Nantes, but escaped from their prison on April 1 and, disguised as peasants, started boldly to pass the sentries. They were recognized, however, by a passerby, who ran ahead and informed the guards. The latter airily shouted back “Poisson d’Avril!” And so the supposed peasants were allowed to pass.

Fontainebleau (Image from Wikipedia

Another historical April fool day joke was that which Napoleon played on two gentlemen of his privy council, M. Regnault and M. Nisas. On April 1, 1809, these two high dignitaries were ordered to come at once to Fontainebleau, where the emperor was then staying. The distance was far, and the two gentlemen had to hire extra post horses. When they arrived, after driving fast for many leagues, they were told that the emperor was out riding. He came in after an hour or so and appeared to be greatly puzzled to see them before him.

“Did you not send for us, sire?” they said.

“No,” said the emperor, “but I remember now that this is the 1st of April. Some one may have taken the liberty of fooling you.”

M. Regnault was highly indignant and said so, but his companion took the joke good humoredly and diplomatically replied, “Perhaps so, but I am thankful to him anyway, for he gave me an audience with your majesty which I should otherwise have missed.”

Napoleon, who was very susceptible to flattery, rewarded M. Nisas with promotion, while his companion was curtly dismissed.

The adult Briton rarely unbends to such foolery, but when he does he goes into it seriously. Even to this day Englishmen remember the joke which was played in 1800 by a set of jesters in London who put their heads together and perpetrated a successful and notorious joke on a large number of people. Toward the latter part of March in that year many well known people and some who would like to have been considered such received cards of invitation bearing an official stamp in one corner and reading as follows:

Tower of London (Image from

“Tower of London. Admit bearer and friend to view annual ceremony of washing the white lions on Sunday, April 1. Admittance only at the White gate. It is particularly requested that no gratuities be given the wardens or attendants.”

There was a great crowd of cabs and pedestrians around the tower on the morning indicated, but they clamored in vain for admission until some one raised the cry of “April fool,” and then those who had thought themselves recipients of an unusual favor sneaked quietly home. The phrase “Send him to see the white lions washed” was for a long time a very popular one, and possibly is used even now.

Americans are notorious the world over for their joking propensities, but we are liable to break loose at any time and do not confine our foolery to the 1st of April. P.T. Barnum, that fun loving father of the “monster show,” perpetrated what is probably the most famous April fool day joke on record. It was perhaps a score of years ago that he advertised a new attraction for April 1.

“The most wonderful beast ever exhibited to human eyes! Puzzles the scientists! Amazes the multitude! A horse with his tail where his head ought to be!” read the flaming posters. And when the wondering crowds had passed under the canvas they saw a horse standing between the shafts of a cart with his head toward the whiffletree.

But it remained for the American small boy to illuminate All Fools’ day. Down through the centuries it had come to him with nothing but legends of a few stale pranks that were not very witty when they were new. He was not long in discovering greater possibilities in the day than the ancients or foreign folk had ever dreamed of. Putting his inventive mind to work and calling on his fertile resources, he evolved a series of April Fool day jokes which will live for centuries, but which will delight each succeeding generation.

To the American small boy we owe the brick under the hat joke, that time honored institution which lives in the memory of battered toes and aching ankles. The hot silver dollar, the coin nailed to the sidewalk, the stuffed pocketbook, apparently bursting with greenbacks, but really filled with nothing more valuable than green paper; the carefully wrapped paper parcel containing a choice collection of old rags — these are some of his humorous inventions which are not only mirth provoking to the spectators year in and year out, but are capable of many variations. For instance, the pocketbook may contain a genuine bank note, a corner of which can be artfully displayed, but a string removes it from the reach of the covetous victim just as he is about to grab it. The silver dollar may be heated so hot that it will burn the fingers of the man who attempts to pick it up, and the American boy, who is a little savage at heart, will howl with glee.

It was the American boy who conceived the idea of pinning to the backs of staid old gentlemen placards reading “Please Kick Me,” “I Am an April Fool,” etc. He invented the chocolate cream bonbon stuffed with cotton and cayenne pepper, the cigar which explodes and endangers the eyesight of the smoker and other kindred agents of expressing his innocent joy. It was a grown up American boy, too, who invented the April fool wineglass, which is apparently full of wine, but which is a delusion and a snare. This year there is a brand new article of this kind on the market. It is an excellent imitation of a plate of fried eggs, but the eggs are made of porcelain and glass, so be careful when you sit down to your morning meal on the 1st of April next, for the practical joker of the family may have made an investment.

There have been many fruitless speculations as to the origin of All Fool’s day and its customs. It has been traced back as far as the ancient Hindoos, but its lineage is doubtful and the quaint rhymed from Poor Robin’s Almanack best expresses the result, or lack of it, of all investigations on this subject:

The first of April, some do say,
Is set apart for All Fools’ day,
But why the people call it so
Nor I nor they themselves do know.


The Lewiston Daily Sun – Mar 19, 1897