The best part of this particular Halloween activity is it’s done at parties for small children and folks don’t show up at my door carrying a tub and a bucket of water and expecting me to supply the apples. That is to say, bobbing is something I can watch from a respectful distance but I don’t have to do anything. “Good,” says I.
The apple/Halloween connection dates to the Roman conquest of England. That’s the four centuries after 43 CE for anyone who doesn’t have the date right on the tip of their tongue.
The Romans pursued a pragmatic policy of folding local religious celebrations into the Roman ones, the better to civilize all these barbarians they now had to deal with. With the admirable intention of Romanizing a holiday, they turned their sights on the Celtic festival of Samhain which fell at the autumn equinox.
Samhain was a fine, robust old festival held when the days were about to get shorter and shorter and colder and colder and just generally life would be somewhat more miserable. This was the turn of the Celtic calendar, the beginning of the new year, a time when it was felt the dead were particularly liable to return to haunt the living. Dealing with this annual visitation called for lighting huge sacred bonfires and making sacrifice of items from the harvest and the odd animal they thought the gods might fancy. Folks dressed in costumes of animal heads and skins, did what they could to chase away any bad luck that came through the gates of the netherworld along with the spirits, and did a little foretelling of the future.
The Romans looked at Samhain and were immediately reminded of the Festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The connection seems tenuous. We don’t know much about Pomona’s festival, but I rather doubt it involved animal skins and bonfires. Be that as it may, Pomona was particularly associated with apples. It’s not a great stretch to imagine some of the prognostication that was already part of Samhain began to involve apples. They were lying about available at this time of the year, after all.
In any case, that's an argument the divinational virtues of apples may date from as long ago as the Romans. Certainly, we have a variety of apple fortune telling going on in the last few centuries. Who knows how old it is?
One of my favorites superstitions is apple oriented. Young girls, peeling apples, would try to take the skin off in one long, unbroken strip. They’d toss that strip over their shoulder and use hope and imagination to make out a shape or a letter in the way it fell. That would indicate the name of their future husband.
I pare this pippin round and round again,
My shepherd's name to flourish on the plain.
I fling th' unbroken paring o'ver my head,
Upon the grass a perfect L. is read.
John Gay, 1714
When I was a kid I’d always try to get the apple peel off in one go. It’s some kinda basic human instinct.
Bobbing for apples — in the north of England called ‘Ducking’ or ‘Dukking’ for apples is centuries old. It comes in both a water format and an ‘apple suspended on a string’ format. That grab-an-apple-in-your-teeth game has been around at least 600 years. The apples-in-cold-wet-water is at least three hundred. Both practices may be much older.
One old divination carried out when bobbing for apples in a basin of water is the young ladies carved a letter on a particular apple. When the young man bobbed for apples she’d see who got ‘hers’.
I imagine the men peeked but that’s just me being cynical.
I feel like apple bobbing is less popular in 2015 than it was even fifty years ago. This might be the general dwindling of folk customs. It might be a greater emphasis on costumes and candy over other traditional activities. And it might be that apples are less of a special treat now than they were a hundred years ago. Even a very fine, sweet eating apple may seem a feeble reward for dunking yer head.
I’m sad when old customs die. Not, you understand, that I’d want to do this myself.
Do you have family ‘harvest time’ traditions? Decorating the house for Halloween? Going out to pick apples? Oktoberfest? Tell me what moves you at this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
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