Every country has its strange traditions, and France is no exception. April kicks off with the best of the lot. The first of day of the month is the day of poissons d’avril (April fish). The idea is to sneakily stick fish on people’s backs without them noticing. Not real fish, of course, but paper or fabric ones. But what on earth for? Where did this tradition, the French equivalent of the British April Fool’s Day, come from? There are several versions.
One is that it all began with a silly fish trick. Someone would be sent to the market as a joke to buy an out-of-season fish, which made them look really foolish. Even small children in food-focussed France know what food is in season when! Another idea is that the poisson element is a corruption of passion which is associated with Easter. But the most persuasive explanation goes back to the 16th century. The New Year used to begin at Easter, often around the beginning of April. However, in 1564 King Charles IX changed it to 1st January. However, in some areas the tradition of giving New Year’s presents around 1st April lingered, and because it was only the ‘false’ New Year, they gave ‘false’ presents i.e. they played tricks instead.But really it doesn’t matter how it all started. It’s just a fun time for kids, especially as adults are meant to reward them with a chocolate fish for each paper fish that ends up on their backs! And had it been a school day, the children would have been served chocolate-filled pastry poissons d’avril for their lunches.
More often than not Pâques (Easter) falls in April and that has some nice traditions associated with it. The first of April is Palm Sunday this year. We had our service yesterday, a day early, in Nouzerines. Our little church is rarely open and the services are generally taken by lay preachers. We always go along to support them and help keep our twelfth century church functioning.
It was a sweet ceremony with a procession of the cross, a picture of Jesus and a jug of water at the beginning. During the service, the water was blessed. And at the end, the children poured the water into the font. On the way out, all the congregation dipped the bunches of buis (boxwood or box elder) that they had brought with them into the water. This blessed buis will be kept on display in the house over Easter and bring good fortune. That was all new to us yesterday, a nice surprise. Another surprise was that the lady leading the service asked my husband Chris to carry the cross in the procession. We’d cycled down to the church, so there he was in his cycling longs and a very slightly scruffy jumper with Denis the Menace on it. But no one seemed to mind!
Chasses d’oeufs (Easter Egg hunts) will be taking place everywhere over the coming week. Our son’s school has theirs today. As usual it will be a grey, chilly occasion. The weather never seems that good around Easter. We had snow a few years ago, and it’s forecast for this year too. But despite the greyness, this morning will see forty excited kids scampering around looking for hidden, painted eggs, and at the same time, trying to stick fish on each other. It could get out of hand!
How did the eggs for them to find get scattered around? These ones have been distributed by human means, but on Easter Day itself, the bells do it. On Maundy Thursday, the church bells (or at the very least their chimes) fly off to the Pope in Rome to take everyone’s sadness at Christ’s suffering and crucifixion with them. They come back, all happy again, on Easter morning, bringing pretty decorated eggs with them which they hide in children’s gardens. Does that sound like a tall story? Well, you won’t hear a bell chiming between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday in France so it could just be they’re not there!
You don’t tend to get large chocolate Easter Eggs in France. There are lots of small ones, usually with delicious fillings. Thanks to the flying bell legend, you’ll find a huge quantity of cloches volants (chocolate bells with wings). You’ll also come across vast herds of chocolate rabbits, flocks of chocolate hens and lambs, and shoals of chocolate fish. These are chocolate poissons d’avril. They range from tiny friture (fish fry) to enormous multi-coloured specimens.
And with the blossom coming out, the swallows returning, lambs and calves in the fields, the woodpeckers hammering away and the cuckoos calling, April is a good time to be in France – and especially if you like chocolate!
I’m Stephanie Dagg, author, editor, fishery owner, alpaca and llama farmer – oh yes, and mum and wife too. We live in the rural heart of France in Creuse, an area famous for its hazlenut cake and extremely elderly population. We’re truly Europeans having lived in England and Ireland before coming here. I blog about our daily life as expats with all its pleasures and perplexities, and fun and frustrations at www.bloginfrance.com. You’ll find my many and mostly free ebooks here on my Smashwords page www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SJDagg.