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Who Knew? Profs Share Facts About April Fish... Er, Fool's!

This is perhaps not the best year for making up a fake news story for April Fool's Day, a day devoted to pranking around the globe. So instead, we asked Davidson professors to deepen our knowledge of the tradition.  

Poisson d'Avril!

Students with paper fish on their backs
The French tradition of attaching a dead fish to an unsuspecting victims' back has evolved into something more benign.

Playing practical jokes on your family and friends on the first day of April is by no means a cultural practice made in the U.S.A. While the exact origins of the holiday remain obscure, French people have been celebrating Poisson d'avril, or "April Fish" since at least the 16th century, when King Charles IX decreed that the new year would start on January 1, instead of on March 1 or March 25 as observed in some regions of the kingdom.

According to folklore, people who did not accept the new calendar were mocked by those who did. Okay, but what's up with the fish? Some note the fact that April 1 fell at the end of Lent, when observant Catholics were finally able to give up a steady diet of fish and could once again start eating meat; others have tied the holiday to the opening of fishing season. Whichever origin story you prefer, the important thing to know today is that in France and in Québec, Canada, school children continue the tradition of sneaking up on unsuspecting "fools" and taping a cutout paper fish onto their backs. Some clueless victims are left to walk through their day with a paper fish stuck to their clothing; others discover the trick when the perpetrator runs away and yells Poisson d'avril!

—Carole Kruger, Associate Professor of French & Francophone Studies   

That's Hilaria

Painting: Francois-Edouard Picot’s Cybele Protects from Vesuvius, 1832.
Cybele was the mother of the gods, and her ceremonial rites resembled those of Dionysus. Painting: Francois-Edouard Picot's Cybele Protects from Vesuvius, 1832.

We hear about the Roman feast of Hilaria in Macrobius (c 400 CE); introduced after Antoninus Pius (Emperor 138-161), the Hilaria, or 'feast of joy and laughter' closes the rituals of Attis, which begin on March 25 (i.e. these are all around the time of the spring equinox).

Attis was a young shepherd boy who, in the midst of celebrating Cybele (the Great Mother), castrated himself (as devotees of Cybele were unfortunately wont to do, apparently) and died. His mournful feast days precede the April feast days of Cybele and the April 1 Hilaria changes the sad mood back to joyful, the regeneration of life (and crops).

—Jeanne Neumann, Professor of Classics

Happy "Whan that Aprill Day!"

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet of contradictions

April 1 marks the date of medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer's famous fictional pilgrimage in the Canterbury Tales. And we have reason to think that in beginning his book, Chaucer slyly participated in something like a medieval April Fool's joke. As many a high school student knows, the General Prologue to Chaucer's Tales begins with the observation that April's changing weather awakens a yearning in all of us. Specifically, Chaucer says, when the sap rises in the trees, the days get longer and the birds are singing in the trees, then we "folk" long to undertake difficult and pious religious pilgrimages.

Even in the Middle Ages, this is a strange thing to say. It is a little like claiming that springtime makes all of the students long to spend their days in library carrels, diligently attending to their academic duties. Medieval pilgrimage was physically and emotionally arduous and, in its ideal version, involved prolonged reflection on sin and death.

Chaucer is a poet of contradictions, and as he joins these two concepts, pilgrimage and springtime, he asks us to hold in our minds both death and life, both chastity and love, and both virtue and laxity, and maybe to smirk or even chuckle as we do so. In that famous 18-line opening, we might do well to imagine Chaucer winking at us across all of those centuries when we encounter his little April jest.

—Gabriel Ford, Visiting Assistant Professor of English


John Syme
josyme@davidson.edu
704-894-2523