A common Halloween party tradition is bobbing for apples. But, how did this strange tradition begin? While it is a fun party game today its origins and development can be traced back to the Samhain festival, ancient Rome, and has its roots in divination.
The Romans originally brought apples to the Celtic people when they covered Britain. One of the many things they brought with them were the apple trees and a goddess of beauty and fertility, Pomona. The Celtic people had been celebrating Samhain long before the Romans came and the Romans saw a way to blend the two cultures through apples.
When the Celts first encountered apples they couldn’t help but notice that when you cut an apple in half its seeds form a pentagram. The pentagram in Celtic culture was a fertility symbol and since Pomona, the Roman goddess represented by the apple tree is also a fertility goddess apples seem to be a highly potent fertility symbol.
They also have some pretty serious implications. Atlas Obscura points out, “bobbing for apples is sometimes called dooking or douking for apples, the same word used to describe dunking a woman in water to test if she might be a witch.”
During Samhain, it was believed that bobbing for apples could be a divination tool. Back then, bobbing for apples was for a very specific set of people: unmarried young people. Young unmarried people would try to bite into an apple and it could either be floating in water or hanging from a string (it is usually called snap apple when on a string). It was said the first person to bite into an apple would be the next one to marry. This is the most simplistic take on the tradition.
But, the game doesn’t have to be over when one person gets the apple. The game can also be held en masse. For example, if multiple young, unwed people are bobbing at once the moment they catch one they could peel it quite carefully and then wrap the peeling (all in one ribbon) around their head. Once they’ve wrapped it they are to throw it over their shoulder. Once the peel is flung the shape it lands in will be representative of the first letter of their true love’s first name.
Ann English tradition-spin on bobbing for apples doesn’t really look like the classic bucket full of water and apples. In fact, apples are strung up and then twirled so they spin in front of a lit fireplace. The order the apples fall will tell the order in which the people that hung them will be married.
Other times the divination aspect is slightly altered because the young names of those bobbing would also be written or etched into the apples. So, if you watched carefully enough you could aim to snag the apple with your lover’s or crush’s name!
Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833. It was inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832. It is liscensed in the public domain.