If you’ve ever found yourself at a Halloween party, it’s likely that at one time or another, you’ve witnessed the strange yet time-honored act of bobbing for apples. Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably at least heard of this classic Halloween tradition.
If you need a little refresher, apple bobbing goes a little something like this: the bobber voluntarily dips their entire head into a large bucket of water, desperately hoping to wrap their mouth around an old, damp apple. An apple which, if you aren’t the first one to try, has probably already felt the frantic gnawing of several different mouths by that point. Still hungry for apples?
This strange, ancient fall tradition has been the humorous focal point of many Halloween TV specials, and even occasionally the sweet catalyst for love in romantic comedies. The question is, why? Where did all this craziness start? Why do we bob for apples on Halloween, despite its inherent grossness? And does it have anything to do with the whole strange concept of Halloween candy?
Let’s bite into this topic a bit more.
Bobbing for Apples Origin
The history of bobbing for apples goes back several centuries to the Roman invasion of Britain. There is no clear consensus on the connection between the two cultures, or which provided which elements of the game, but the most common early version was that women did the bobbing in hopes of getting their teeth on the apple symbolizing their desired mate. First try – great news! Get ready for a steamy union and long marriage. Second try – don’t expect it to work out in the long-term, but it still might work for a night or two. Third try or more – you probably shouldn’t even try to team up for the pumpkin-carving contest.
Of course, as with any tradition, there were regional variations that evolved over time. For instance, in one version of the game, multiple women all bobbed for the same apple, representing the same man. This presumably brought a bit more of an edge to the competition, although there is little information as to how the rest of the men were doled out. Bobbing for pumpkin seeds, maybe?
Of course, as with any pagan ritual, more sinister theories abound. Some historians suggest that potential human sacrifices were forced to bob for apples in scalding water, with failure dooming them to death, while success saved their life but left them badly burned and disfigured. Sorry for ruining apple bobbing for you.
Why Do We Bob for Apples on Halloween?
So, how did bobbing for apples come to be associated with Halloween? Well, the connection between the game and Halloween is likewise a bit murky.
We do know that by the 19th century, bobbing for apples had mostly fallen out of favor, only to be revived along with Halloween, which is roughly based on the Celtic festival of harvest known as Samhain. Since a big part of Samhain involved celebrating the Roman goddess of fruit, Pomona, who was normally represented by an apple, the old tradition eventually became part of Halloween. Or maybe people just thought Halloween needed something a little more fun than ghosts and witches?
Interestingly, though, even as the popularity of Halloween has increased over time, bobbing for apples has declined in popularity. Which probably isn’t all that surprising, considering the dangers involved, and the fact that it requires people to actually get their hair wet.
Apple bobbing is still an integral part of some Halloween festivities, however, along with a wide variety of different games people have come up with over time to spice up their annual October parties. In the end, though, whether people choose to think of bobbing for apples as edgy due to its alleged malevolent origins in Celtic festivals, or as a tender and romantic way to force a man into marriage against his will, it will almost certainly make a mess of the tablecloth. And you always want to go first!
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.