Bobbing For Apples
Updated: May 15, 2022
There is a scene in the classic "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" in which the Peanuts gang is gathered for a Halloween party. Lucy is getting ready to bob for apples. When she successfully snatches an apple with her teeth, she discovers Snoopy, dressed as the famed WWI fighter ace, also has a grip on the apple. Lucy famously shrieks: "Dog Germs!"
Bobbing for apples has long been a staple tradition for Halloween parties and Fall festivals. Yet how did this unusual activity get started? Like many holiday symbols and traditions, the origins of apple bobbing go back to our ancient pagan cultures.
Apples, which were widespread throughout Europe and Asia, have always been considered sacred or mystical by many different cultures. In Greek mythology, the goddess Hera's prized golden apples were protected in the garden of the Hesperides.
Idunn, a goddess in Norse myth, grows the golden apples which give the Norse deities immortality. In Celtic traditions, the dead King Arthur is brought to Avalon, the Isle of Apples. Merlin receives knowledge from the Faerie Queen who eats magical apples. Adam and Eve eat the apple from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Chinese pictogram for apple translates as peace. Many cultures used apples, apple peels, and apple pips (the seeds) in their divination rituals. They were a symbol of abundance and fertility.
It is not hard to understand our ancestors' worship of the apple. The trees blossom in the Spring as a sign that the hard days of winter were over. The fruit ripens in the Fall, before the onset of colder weather. The fruit is versatile providing sustenance throughout the winter months. Apples can be stored in cold cellars for a long time. They can be eaten fresh, boiled, or baked. They can be dried. They can be made into apple butter, applesauce, and cider.
The significance of the symbolism of the apple was particularly strong in Celtic areas. The Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow" - as in cow - "in") occurred at the end of October. This was a time that the boundary between the living world and the spirit world was broken. Spirits, both mischievous and beneficial, returned to visit the living. It was a time that the Celts believed divination was powerful. Part of the traditional rites of Samhain was to light bonfires and tie apples to evergreen trees. Gifts of fruit and nuts were given as offerings for the gods. Many of the elements of modern Halloween have their roots in this ancient festival.
The tradition of bobbing for apples goes back to at least the Roman occupation of Britain. Though it is not known for certain how this tradition started, it is surmised that the Romans brought with them the worship of Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, orchards, and gardens, to the British Isles. (The French word "pomme" and the Italian "pomo" both meaning apple derive from the Latin "pomus" meaning fruit.) The idea of apples as a symbol of fruitfulness and fertility was merged with the Celtic view of apples as tools of prophecy. Bobbing for apples became a means of foretelling one's romantic future.
Many variations of this activity evolved over time. In one version, young women would secretly mark the apples, and then toss them into a basin of water. Since apples are less dense than water, they float, and potential beaus would try and catch the bobbing apples with their teeth. If they succeeded then a future couple was determined. In a similar version, it would be the young ladies bobbing for the apples. If they were successful on the first try, then a romance was foretold. If it took two tries, then there would be a courtship, but love would fade. At three tries, then romance would be doomed to failure.
A different approach had participants racing towards the basin filled with apples. The first one to snatch an apple with their teeth would be the first person to marry. For another version, if a girl puts the apple she had bitten underneath her pillow, then she would dream of her future lover. A related tradition had young women trying to peel an apple in one continuous peel. They would then toss the peel over their shoulders and turn around to see if the peel formed a letter. This would be the initial of their future husband. (Margaret Atwood references this practice in the novel Alias Grace.)
There were some versions of the game that did not involve apples bobbing in water. One popular version, which dates back to the 14th century, was called Snap-Apple. It was a favorite in Ireland and Scotland and Halloween was often referred to as Snap-Apple Night. Like bobbing for apples, the goal was to catch an apple with one's teeth. An apple was hung from one end of a wooden plank. The plank was suspended from the ceiling. One had to catch the apple with their teeth as the plank spun around. The difficulty was that at the other end of the plank was a lit candle. If you didn't grab the apple, you risked getting hit in the face with hot wax. The Irish artist Daniel Maclise captured this in his painting "Snap-Apple Night" after attending a Halloween party in Blarney, Ireland. At the first exhibition of the painting, the caption read:
There Peggy was dancing with Dan While Maureen the lead was melting, To prove how their fortunes ran With the Cards could Nancy dealt in; There was Kate, and her sweet-heart Will, In nuts their true-love burning, And poor Norah, though smiling still She'd missed the snap-apple turning.
On the Festival of Hallow Eve.
The popularity of bobbing for apples waned by the early 1880s except in Ireland and isolated places of England. Irish immigrants not only brought apple pips in their pockets to North America, but they also brought with them many of the traditions and superstitions surrounding apples and Halloween in general. By the turn of the twentieth century, Americans revived apple bobbing as a party game for children as well as adults. Soon it became a fixture not just for Halloween, but for many Fall celebrations. Today, because of a more health-conscious society, people are less inclined to participate in this ancient Celtic ritual.
The New Book of Apples: Joan Morgan
The Secret, Steamy History of Halloween Apples: Alison Richards (NPR)
Snap-Apple Night: Patricia Bixler Reber (Researching Food History)
The Fiery Halloween Tradition That Gave Us Bobbing for Apples: Michele Debczak (Mental Floss)