Bobbing for Apples

Bobbing for Apples (also “ducking for apples,” “dookin’ for apples,” “Bob-apple”)— The most popular of all Halloween GAMES. Although it’s been claimed that bobbing for apples represents an old DRUID or pagan rite, there’s virtually no evidence to support this (although we do know that the CELTS considered APPLES to be important, possibly even sacred). The Luttrell Psalter, a fourteenth century illuminated manuscript, contains probably the earliest reference to bobbing for apples, although the game had undoubtedly been played long before then.

In the classic version of the game, a large tub (either galvanized metal or wood) is placed on the floor or the ground and filled with WATER and apples, then contestants must kneel by the tub and attempt to retrieve an apple without using their hands (some versions even deny players the use of their teeth!). It was also sometimes specified that that contestants could not move the apple to the side of the tub or pan, meaning they must plunge their faces completely into the cold water. Although the apple itself was usually the prize, a separate reward might also be given to whoever could bite the most apples.

In one Scottish version, the apples are tumbled into the tub and stirred with a wooden spoon or rod made of hazel or ash. Sometimes there was a custom regarding placing the apples into the tub: Each person at the party would choose an apple, and then all players marched around the tub in the direction of the sun (or deas-iuil) and threw their apples in. In situations where partygoers weren’t interested in getting wet, the game might be played by standing over the tub and holding a fork in the teeth; the object was to spear an apple by releasing the fork at the right point (an American name for this variant was “mumble-ty-apple”). Sometimes coins of different denominations were inserted into the apples, so that a successful bobbing also guaranteed a small monetary prize (money might also be simply dropped into the tub with the apples— in fact, it might even replace the use of the apples entirely).

Sometimes bobbing for apples served as a FORTUNE-TELLING game. In the simplest versions of this, the first to successfully retrieve a stemless apple would be the first to be married, or a happy life was foretold for anyone who could successfully snatch an apple. In one version of the game, players marked their initials on an apple (or even inserted a small note), and marriage was foretold by whose apple one could successfully bite. Those who obtained an apple might take their prize to bed, place the apple under their pillow, and then have dreams in which their future spouses were shown to them.

A variation of bobbing for apples was to bite the apple while it was suspended from a string overhead (or sometimes scones covered in treacle or molasses might be used in place of apples). This variation of the game was called snap-apple or hanch-apple, and SNAP-APPLE NIGHT was sometimes used in place of Halloween (a variant of this suggests that doughnuts or candy can be used in place of apples, and that the objective is to eat the object off the string).

Apples might also be attached to one end of a stick, while flour, a lighted CANDLE, a treacle bun, a potato or a bar of soap was attached to the other end; the stick was spun, and players had to try to bite the whirling apple (which might even have a small prize placed within it). In a variation of this custom, a barrel-hoop was suspended from the ceiling, with apples, candies, CAKES and candle-ends placed around its perimeter; the hoop was spun, and contestants had to try to bite an edible. In another version, peppers and bread might also be interspersed, and whatever could be bitten first would indicate the flavor of one’s future married life.


The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved