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Bobbing for Apples: History & How to Keep The Halloween Tradition ALIVE

Some of my favorite things during the holidays give a nod to the past. Bobbing for apples is one of the old-timey Halloween customs that most of us have no idea where it originated. In this Samhain article, we’ll talk about the history and origins of bobbing for apples, why apples were a sacred fruit to our ancestors, and how to keep this fun Halloween tradition alive today.

What is Bobbing for Apples?

To put it simply, bobbing for apples (also called apple ducking) 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. It’s messy. It’s sloppy. And it’s a lot of fun! There’s some variations on bobbing for apples nowadays that amplify the silliness and make it even spookier like turning the apples into shrunken heads (shown later). It’s typically played on Halloween and at Fall Festivals.

Apple Symbolism:

  • Love
  • Regeneration
  • Health 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
  • Divine Feminine Energy
  • Fairy Magic

The History of Bobbing for Apples

The actual origin of bobbing for apples is unknown, but likely stems from ancient Celtic and Norse traditions. One thing is for sure – the apple has been part of Autumn celebrations for centuries. It’s truly a symbol of the Autumn season, rivaling only the pumpkin, in the United States and elsewhere. When Fall comes around, the apple trees are heavy with fruit, as apples are typically ready to harvest between late Summer and late Fall. But let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

The Apple as an Otherworldly Fruit

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, the apple was a sacred fruit, a gift given to us via the Celtic Otherworld. Cliodhna, a goddess and Celtic Fairy Queen, lives off of an eternal apple tree, from which her divine birds also perch and eat. To the Norse, apples were the fruit of immortality, guarded by the goddess Idunn.

And in the British Isles, a mythical land called Avalon is said to be wooded with magical apple trees. 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 (not surprisingly!) 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.

Before Halloween, There Was Samhain

Before there was Halloween, there was an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. Samhain was the end of summer and a liminal time, a time betwixt being neither here nor there. And therefore, the Celts believed the door to the spirit world was opened during this time. Spirits, both ghosts and fairies, wandered the earth on Samhain night. They could either provide the living with their blessings or trick them with misfortunes. Samhain became Hallowe’en (All Hallows’ Eve) over the centuries and after the pagan Celts were converted to Christianity. But the belief in the spirit world and contact with it never went away.

There was a Spiritual Renaissance during the Victorian Era including celebrating Halloween.

A Very Victorian Halloween With Apples

Divination was big on Halloween night, particularly during the Victorian Era. The eighteen hundreds saw a renaissance of interest in the spiritual and supernatural. Spiritualists believed the dead could be contacted via seances with spirit boards, pendulums, and through psychic mediums. And for those who weren’t serious about their beliefs, things like Ouija boards and the like became common parlor games. An activity to entertain your neighbors and friends. Halloween, a holiday brought to America en masse in the 1840s with the immigration if the Irish, became a favorite day to party, divine the name of your husband, and revive the old ways.

Apple Divination Games

According to Silver RavenWolf in her book Halloween, the Victorian divination games played on Halloween night were mainly played by young girls seeking to learn the name or identity of their future husbands. And they frequently employed apples:

  • Peel 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
  • Stand in front of a mirror at midnight, comb your hair and eat an apple, and the image of your future husband will appear in the mirror over your left shoulder (I’m pretty sure I would poo my pants if this ever actually happened to me!)
  • Hang an apple peel over the front door on Halloween, and the initial of the first man to enter will be the same as your future husband’s (this seems pretty vague to me)
  • 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 (then by placing the apple under your pillow will bring dreams of your future spouse)

I could go on and on with the ways in which to use apples to divine one’s future spouse. There are many more depending on the country, region and family. One thing is for sure – bobbing for apples is a tradition steeped in older forms of divination.

Snap Apple Night

Snap apple night was essentially the same night as Halloween in places throughout Ireland and the British Isles. Upon research, I can’t find anything solid that the name “snap apple night” was ever used except for as a name to a painting done by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833. The painting depicts a gathering of people on Halloween night playing various games with apples, including apple ducking (bobbing for apples) and snap apple. Snap apple is a risky activity in which an apple is suspended from string, along with a lit candle, beckoning players to bite the apple without biting into hot wax. Or potentially burning themselves altogether.

Consider making shrunken head apples for your Halloween apple ducking tradition!

“On the last night of October

comes the mystical Halloween.

The night when ghosts and witches,

by mortals can be seen.

Then merry maidens fortunes tell,

and tricks on others pay;

And children bob for apples

on Halloween so gay.”

Elizabeth F. Guptil, Halloween

How to Continue this Tradition Every Halloween (A Twist on Bobbing for Apples)

Bobbing for apples is an easy Halloween tradition to keep alive. You can even get creative with it and put your own spin on it. We mentioned and showed the shrunken apple heads earlier in the post. Here’s some other ways to make bobbing with apples your own unique Halloween game:

  • Use different colored apples: yellow, green and red
  • Different colored apples could equal different prizes (or lack thereof)
  • Add other kinds of fruit to the mix like oranges and lemons (if you really want to see people scream and laugh, blindfold them!)
  • Blindfold and turn your participants 3 times ’round, similar to playing pinata then lead them to the apple ducking tub
  • Make shrunken apple heads for a creepy twist
  • Draw a special symbol on one or more of the apples, and when someone pulls up an apple with a symbol, they win a prize

If you’re worried about spreading germs, blindfold your participants, spin them three times ’round and give them tongs. Then tell them to grab an apple and let the fun begin!

How to Play Traditional Bobbing for Apples

If you’re anything like me, you might want to keep bobbing for apples as traditional as possible. And that’s wonderful! We need more of these customs to be kept alive and passed down through families else we lose them entirely.

What You’ll Need:

  • A large tub filled almost to the top with clean, moderate-temperature water (traditionally a metal tub is used but plastic works just as well and is easy to acquire. Also note the temperature of the water shouldn’t be too cold or too hot)
  • Enough apples to almost fill the surface of the water (1-2 dozen): the choice in color is up to you (you want enough apples to almost fill the surface but not so many that they can’t move around in the water)
  • You may want to have extra apples to replace partially bitten ones throughout the game
  • NOTE: if small children will be playing, consider using smaller apples so they can actually get their mouth around them
  • A table on which to set the basin (or you may choose to keep it on the ground)
  • Towels for participants to dry their faces/hair/hands
  • Willing (preferably healthy LOL) participants
  • Prizes (Optional): candy, tokens, candied apples, money, etc.

How to Play:

  1. Have your participants line up, youngest to oldest, in front of the basin filled with apples (alternatively, if your bin is large enough, you can have multiple people bobbing for apples at the same time)
  2. Having a timer set to time each participant will help the game move along. We typically give each player a minute then they move to the back of the line and the next player tries.
  3. Remind the players they cannot use their hands. So to keep their hands behind their backs.
  4. We also enjoy playing music to energize the participants. Something similar to the music used for musical chairs.
  5. The first person to pull up an apple using nothing but their mouth within the time allotted is the winner! Alternatively, if you marked certain apples with symbols, the first person to pull up a marked apple wins.

A 2nd Way to Play: (Sanitary) Bobbing for Apples

It’s funny. You look up what it was like back in the day when kids went bobbing for apples and there’s literally quotes from mothers saying they’re worried about them “catching colds”. Nothing has changed today, but instead it’s the worry of catching Covid. Truthfully, having a bunch of people dunking their heads into a tub of water and putting their mouths all over the same apples does seem like a cesspool waiting to happen. So if you’re worried about spreading illness, try out our more sanitary option.

What You’ll Need:

  • A large tub filled almost to the top with clean, moderate-temperature water (traditionally a metal tub is used but plastic works just as well and is easy to acquire. Also note the temperature of the water shouldn’t be too cold or too hot)
  • Enough apples to almost fill the surface of the water (1-2 dozen): the choice in color is up to you (you want enough apples to almost fill the surface but not so many that they can’t move around in the water)
  • A table on which to set the basin (or you may choose to keep it on the ground)
  • A blindfold
  • Pair of large tongs
  • Willing participants
  • Prizes (optional): candy, caramel apples, little toys, money, etc.

How to Play:

  1. Have your participants line up, youngest to oldest, in front of the basin filled with apples (alternatively, if your bin is large enough, you can have multiple people bobbing for apples at the same time)
  2. Having a timer set to time each participant will help the game move along. We typically give each player a minute then they move to the back of the line and the next player tries.
  3. Put the blindfold on the first player and spin them ’round carefully three times. Then lead them to the tub and give them the tongs.
  4. Tell them to pick up an apple with the tongs only and win a prize!
  5. The first person to pull up an apple using nothing but their tongs within the time allotted is the winner! Alternatively, if you marked certain apples with symbols, the first person to pull up a marked apple wins.
Bobbing for Apples: A History & How To

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