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Bobbing for Apples: History and how to keep this ancient Halloween tradition alive

6 min read

Bill Jackson

How did bobbing for apples become a Halloween tradition? The story may surprise you!

Bobbing for apples is one of the old-timey Halloween customs that most of us have no idea where and when it originated.
Apples were a sacred fruit to our ancestors, and we can keep this fun Halloween tradition alive still today.
To put it simply, bobbing for apples, sometimes also called apple ducking or apple bobbing, is a game in which apples are floated in a tub of water, and players have to use only their mouths to pull up an apple from the water. Since the apples are less dense than the water they’re in, they float to the top.
Of course, there’s some variations that amplify the silliness and make it even spookier, including turning the apples into shrunken head, and it was typically played on Halloween and at Fall Festivals.

Either way, since ancient times, apples boast lot of symbolisms including love, regeneration, as well as wealth and vitality (an apple a day keeps the doctor away), knowledge and wisdom (the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil), death and the afterlife, and even fairy magic.
The actual origin of bobbing for apples is unknown, but likely stems from ancient Celtic and Norse traditions, but one thing is for sure: the apple has been part of Autumn celebrations for centuries.
It’s a symbol of the Autumn season, rivaling only the pumpkin. In fact, when Fall (or Autumn, if you prefer) comes around, the apple trees are heavy with fruit, as apples are typically ready to harvest between late Summer and late Fall.
While apples are now easy to find in any grocery store year-round, they were once only available during fall.
But let’s go back to the very beginning.
There’s evidence that apples were brought to Ireland circa 6000 BCE, and they’ve been grown and harvested ever since.
To the ancient Celts, they were sacred fruits, a gift given to us via the Celtic Otherworld. Not by chance Cliodhna, a goddess and Celtic Fairy Queen, lives off of an eternal apple tree, from which her divine birds also perch and eat.
On the other hand, to the Norse, apples were the fruit of immortality, guarded by the goddess Idunn.
Moreover, in the British Isles, a mythical land called Avalon is said to be wooded with magical apple trees. Thus is it any wonder that Christians often depict the “fruit of the knowledge of good and evil” as an apple?
In the Celtic Ogham, an alphabetic system based on trees, the Apple tree is the Quert marking which represents the letter Q.
Its spiritual meanings include protection, healing, love and immortality.
If you cut an apple in half horizontally, you’ll see a pentagram formed from its seeds. This has become a symbol of the elements and of the goddess in modern witchcraft traditions.

In short, before there was Halloween, there was an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, the end of summer and a liminal time, basically a time of transition.
And therefore, the Celts believed the door to the spirit world was opened during this period.
Spirits, both ghosts and fairies, wandered the earth on Samhain night, and they could either provide the living with their blessings or trick them with misfortunes. Samhain then became our modern Hallowe’en (All Hallows’ Eve) over the centuries, after the pagan Celts were converted to Christianity.
However, the belief in the spirit world and contact with it never went away.
Divination was very important on Halloween night, particularly during the Victorian Era, as the 18th century saw a renaissance of interest in the spiritual and supernatural.
Spiritualists believed the dead could be contacted via seances with spirit boards, pendulums, and other psychic mediums while, for those who weren’t serious about their beliefs, things like Ouija boards and the like became common parlor games.
Believe it or not, Halloween is actually a holiday brought to America only in the 1840s with the immigration of the Irish, and became a favorite day to celebrate and revive the old ways.

Apparently, the Victorian divination games were mainly played by young girls seeking to learn the name or identity of their future husbands. And they frequently employed apples.
For example, by peeling an apple at midnight, then throw the peel over your left shoulder or in a bowl of water to divine the initial of your future husband.
Or standing in front of a mirror, at midnight too, combing your hair and eating an apple, and apparently the image of your future husband will appear in the mirror over your left shoulder (I’m pretty sure I would pee my pants if this ever happened to me).
And then the bobbing for apples tradition: in the U.S., a group of single boys and girls are to bob for apples in a tub and whoever pulls up an apple first will be the first to get married, and then by placing the apple under your pillow will bring dreams of your future spouse.
But these are only some examples, as there are many more depending on the country, region and family, but one thing is for sure – bobbing for apples is one of the oldest forms of divination.

Curious fact, “snap apple night” was essentially the same night as Halloween in some places throughout Ireland and the British Isles. Snap apple was a dangerous activity in which an apple was suspended from string, along with a lit candle, beckoning players to bite the apple without biting into hot wax.
Or, potentially, burning themselves altogether.

And, about our apple bobbing, it was once a popular game also in early Europe.
While there were different variations of the game, the purpose remained the same: to see the future of one’s love life.
In one early variation, apples were pre-assigned to potential love interests. Once placed in the water, a young woman would try to retrieve the apple. If it took her only one try to grab the apple, it meant the young couple was destined to be together. If it took her two tries, it meant that her beloved would pursue her but ultimately their relationship was fated to fizzle out.
Three tries?
Don’t even think about it.

Thus…how to continue this tradition?
Well…bobbing for apples is an easy Halloween tradition to keep alive, and you can even get creative with it and put your own spin on it, for example using different colored apples, or blindfold players.
What you’ll need is, to start, a large tub filled almost to the top with clean water, and enough apples to almost fill the surface of the water.
Of course, willing (preferably healthy) participants, and prizes, for example candy, tokens, candied apples or even money.
Remind the players they cannot use their hands!
The first person to pull up an apple using nothing but their mouth within the time allotted is the winner.
But, if you’re worried about spreading illness, try out a more sanitary option with large tongs! The first person to pull up an apple using nothing but their tongs within the time allotted is the winner.

Images from web – Google Research

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