British Popular Customs Present And Past - online book

A calendar of the traditional customs, practices & rituals of the British Isles.

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April i.]
variety of ways. It is very doubtful what is the precise origin of this absurd custom. T'i France the person imposed upon on All Fools' Day is called Poisson d'Avril, an April Fish, which Bellingen, in his Etymology of French Proverbs, published in 1656, thus explains. The word Poisson, he contends, is corrupted through the ignorance of the people from Passion, and length of time has almost totally defaced the original intention, which was as follows: that as the Passion of our Saviour took place about this time of the year, and as the Jews sent Christ backwards and forwards to mock and torment him, that is, from Annas to Caiaphas, from Caiaphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod, and from Herod back again to Pilate, this ridiculous custom took its rise from thence, by which we send about from one place to another such persons as we think proper objects of our ridicule. A writer in the Gent. Mag., 1783, vol. liii. p. 578, also con­jectures that this custom may have an allusion to the mockery of the Saviour of the world by the Jews. Another attempt to explain it has been made by referring to the fact that the year formerly began in Britain on the 25th of March, which was supposed to be the Incarnation of our Lord, and the commencement of a new year was always, both among the ancient heathens and among modern Christians, held as a great festival. It is to be noted then that the 1st of April is the octave of the 25th of March, and the close con­sequently of that feast which was both the festival of the Annunciation and of the New Year. Hence it may have become a day of extraordinary mirth and festivity.
Alluding to this custom, Charles Dickens, jun. (Gent. Mag. 1869, New Series, vol. ii. p. 543), says : A prince of the house of Lorraine, confined in one of Louis XIII,'s prisons, made his escape on the 1st of April by swimming across the moat, and is accordingly commemorated as a poisson dy Avril to this day. Why this should be so is not very clear, inasmuch as the gaolers and not the prince would have been the April fools on the occasion. A later version of the same story would appear to be the correct one. Here the prince and his wife, escaping in the disguise of peasants on the 1st of April, were recognised by a servant-maid as they wore passing out of the castle-gates. She immediately made for the guard-room,
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