Why Do We Bob for Apples on Halloween?

The classic Halloween game has deep roots in history.

A slice of history

You’ve probably heard of bobbing for apples, the classic Halloween game where people try to take a bite out of an apple floating in water. The image of multiple apples floating in a container full of water might bring up memories from your childhood, but did you know the tradition has deep roots in history? There was even an element of romance! Sadly, in 2020, we probably won’t see much apple-bobbing, since the tradition isn’t the most sanitary. Here are some more ways Halloween will be different this year.

What do apples have to do with romance?

Apples have long been associated with fertility, immortality, and magic. Joan Morgan, British apple expert and fruit historian, told the Salt that throughout Europe, “apples, apple peels, and even pips have long been used to peer into the romantic future.” This idea crossed the pond to North America when Europeans literally carried apple seeds with them on their voyages. While “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is a common saying, according to science, apples are known aphrodisiacs, meaning they’re a substance that improves sexual desire. The romantic aspect of apples can also be linked back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Thankfully, compared to other Halloween traditions and legends, the origins of this tradition aren’t as spooky. Here are 14 spooky Halloween superstitions and how they came to haunt us.

What’s the origin of bobbing for apples?

According to History.com, bobbing for apples started out in many European countries as a common way for young lovers to court one another. While there were many versions of the game, each apple definitely represented a special someone. If the bobber, typically female, successfully bit into the apple with the name of a love interest in one go, then fortune favored the lucky couple and fate gave them the go-ahead. If it took the bobber two attempts, then they could still try it out but their love wouldn’t last a long time. Sadly, if the bobber needed three attempts to bite into the apple, then the stars weren’t aligned for this couple and it would probably be best to not pursue it at all.

Other apple bobbing versions

Of course, as history progresses so too do the traditions. Similar to the tradition of having good fortune after catching the bride’s bouquet toss, another variation of bobbing for apples is the first person to bite an apple would be the next one in the group to have a marriage. If a girl bit into an apple and placed the fruit beneath her pillow, another superstition claims, she would see her true love in a dream.

Apples and Halloween

Apples have long been associated with Halloween. Have you ever heard of the Halloween game “Snap Apple”? This popular game is similar to bobbing for apples in that people attempt to take a bite out of an apple. However, unlike bobbing for apples, in Snap Apple the apple is pierced with a stick on one side while the other has a candle, so there’s the added challenge of not getting covered with hot wax while trying to play the game and take a bite out of the moving apple spinning about the room! This game was so well-known and played by so many people during harvest season in England and Ireland that people tended to describe October 31 as “Snap-Apple Night.” Here are 25 more Halloween games to get you in the spooky spirit.

Why do we bob for apples on Halloween?

To understand modern Halloween traditions like bobbing for apples is to understand Halloween history. The Celtic holiday Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”) is normally celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to signify the end of summer and welcome in the new fall harvest and “the dark half of the year.” The Romans and then the Christian Church took Samhain and adapted it, eventually trying to imagine Samhain as a Christian holiday. In short, according to History.com, Pope Gregory in the 9th century declared November 1 as All Saints’ Day and November 2 as All Souls’ Day. Traditional pagan practices can still be seen on modern-day Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, on October 31.

European and Irish immigrants brought their traditions to the Americas, and that includes both pagan traditions and other traditions—like bobbing for apples. Likewise, bobbing for apples became more well-known as some Americans researched their roots and wanted to use this Celtic tradition for Halloween. Check out these 12 other things you probably never knew about Halloween.

A bit of safety to keep in mind

However, despite the romantic origins of bobbing for apples and the current-day childlike whimsical aspect of it, there are still a few dangers around this game to keep in mind for children today. Along with knowing how to trick or treat safely in 2020, parents should keep watch over their children if they elect to bob for apples, as kids can develop eye infections if the water isn’t clean. With all of the changes happening, here’s what Halloween could look like this year.

For more fun facts, costume ideas, traditions, candy inspiration, spooky entertainment, and updates on how October 31 will look different this year, check out our Halloween Guide.

Sources:

  • NPR: “The Secret, Steamy History Of Halloween Apples”
  • Cosmopolitan: “29 Aphrodisiac Foods That Can Affect Your Sex Drive”
  • Vice: “We Spoke to a Druid About the Occult History of Apple-Bobbing”
  • History: “What is bobbing for apples?”
  • Mental Floss: “The Fiery Halloween Tradition That Gave Us Bobbing for Apples”
  • History: “Samhain”
  • TheJournal: “Bobbing for apples, the silent danger this Halloween”

Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com