What Is the Origin of Bobbing for Apples?


Some say the custom of bobbing for apples dates all the way back to pre-Christian Ireland and the festival of Samhain, though there seems to be little documentary evidence to support this. It has also been associated with Pomona, the ancient Roman goddess of fruits, trees, and gardens, in whose honor a festival was supposedly held each year on November first. That, too, appears to stand on shaky historical ground, as some question whether such a festival even existed.

We can say with more certainty that the practice of bobbing for apples goes back at least a few hundred years, that it originated in the British Isles (Ireland and Scotland in particular), and that it originally had something to do with fortune telling. British author W. H. Davenport Adams, who attributed belief in the prognosticative power of apples to "old Celtic fairy lore," described the game as follows in his 1902 book, Curiosities of Superstition:

[The apples] are thrown into a tub of water, and you endeavour to catch one in your mouth as they bob round and round in provoking fashion. When you have caught one, you peel it carefully, and pass the long strip of peel thrice, sunwise, round your head; after which you throw it over your shoulder, and it falls to the ground in the shape of the initial letter of your true love's name.
Other divination games traditionally played on Halloween included "snap apple" -- similar to bobbing for apples except the fruit is hung from the ceiling on strings -- and naming nutshells after prospective love interests and placing them near a fire to see which would burn steadily -- indicating true love -- and which would crack or pop and fly off the hearth -- revealing a passing fancy. Accordingly, in some parts of Great Britain Halloween used to be known as "Snap-Apple Night" or "Nutcrack Night."

Why Do We Wear Costumes and Go Trick-or-Treating on Halloween?

Some historians link the present-day Halloween custom of wearing costumes and going trick-or-treating with the medieval practices of "mumming" and "going a-souling" on the eves of All Saints and All Souls Days (November 1 and 2). Mumming took the form of wearing costumes, singing, play-acting, and mischief making, while souling entailed going door to door and offering prayers for the dead in exchange for treats, particularly "soul cakes."

Another likely progenitor was the British custom, dating from the 1600s, of youths wearing masks and carrying effigies while begging for pennies on Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Night), the November 5 commemoration of the so-called Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605.

Despite the obvious similarities, however, there is little to no evidence of a direct line of succession or process of evolution from those earlier practices to the Halloween customs we know today. By the mid-1800s, when Irish immigrants brought the holiday to North America, mumming and souling were all but forgotten. Most Americans had no idea who Guy Fawkes was, let alone why anyone should go begging for "pennies for the Guy." And although Halloween had earned a permanent spot on the American calendar by the turn of the 20th century, one finds no mention of trick-or-treating or anything like it in published sources earlier than 1939.

One does find mention -- many mentions, in fact -- of unrestrained pranksterism and vandalism in connection with Halloween festivities from the late 1800s on, thus one current theory holds that trick-or-treating was contrived by adults to provide an orderly alternative to juvenile mischief.

Whatever its precise origin, trick-or-treating was an established Halloween tradition by the 1940s and remains so to this day.

Let's all bob for apples! Halloween can be so cool!


  1. Mary Marvella // October 18, 2009 at 12:17 AM  

    I had no idea it was so complicated. Great information! Good graphics, too.

  2. Barbara Monajem // October 18, 2009 at 12:39 AM  

    Mary, thanks for these fun and informative Hallowe'en posts! I've now collected six recipes for soul cakes and am having a great time experimenting with them.

    I too love your graphics. Very cool.

  3. Beth Trissel // October 18, 2009 at 10:36 AM  

    I remember bobbing for apples. who knew all the lore behind these Halloween customs. Thanks for these great posts.

  4. Scarlet Pumpernickel // October 18, 2009 at 12:51 PM  

    Neat post! Love the historical details. I can really believe the adults organized it to curtail juvenile pranks! Try your luck at this game!


  5. Patrice Wilton // October 18, 2009 at 2:02 PM  

    A bobbing we will go, abobbing we will go, it's a good thing the Irish bobbed for apples and not for potatoes, that would have spoiled all the fun!

  6. Mary Marvella // October 18, 2009 at 2:59 PM  

    Patrice! What a thing to say. Wish I'd said it first.

  7. Judy // October 19, 2009 at 8:13 AM  

    Mary, Such fun to learn about the different customs. Who knew apples could be so useful! And I do like the ideas behind all the trickery. Thanks for the post!

  8. Mona Risk // October 19, 2009 at 11:36 AM  

    Thanks for the fun information. I had no idea what bobbing with apples meant.

  9. Pamela Varnado // October 19, 2009 at 1:00 PM  

    Reading your posts has put me back into the Halloween spirit. Since my kids are all adults and my grandkids live in Japan the holiday has been just another day for me. Now I have something to look forward to.

  10. Nightingale // October 19, 2009 at 8:10 PM  

    Spooktacular coverage and information of my almost favorite holiday (is it a holiday? not technically I suppose).