In all honesty, my experience with bobbing for apples is based on the Peanuts’ It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! Halloween special. In my world, you have to dunk your entire head in to get an apple out.
In actuality, bobbing for apples go back further than that. I mean, look at the considerable mythology attached to the apple itself, from the story of Snow White all the way back to the story of the Garden Of Eden. As witchy new Netflix series Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina has shown us, the apple can figure prominently in other magic rituals as well; Sabrina uses an apple in a spell almost right out of the gate, and her wardrobe is heavily scarlet-themed. As Munchies pointed out, “The practice of cutting open an apple to reveal that most potent symbol within—that of the pentagram—is still carried on today, particularly at [Celtic festival] Samhain and Halloween.”
The history of bobbing for this magical, mysterious fruit with your mouth dates back to the Roman invasion of Britain, as the conquering army merged their traditions with Celtic festivals. Apples were a good omen, representing Pomona, the goddess of plenty, so why not search her out? History.com points to the apple bobbing as subsequently involved in courting rituals, like having a female bobber attempting to bite into the apple assigned to her potential beau. “If it only took her one try, they were destined for romance. If she succeeded with her second attempt, he would court her but their love would fade. If it took three tries, their relationship was doomed.” The volume Halloween by Silver RavenWolf also describes the ritual of teenagers selecting each others’ apples from the bobbing bucket, but says that in the American version, the first person to grab an apple would be the first person wed. You could also throw an apple peel over your shoulder at bedtime to see what a future beloved’s first initial would be.
A few years back, Munchies pointed to bobbing for apples as a female fertility ritual: “Goddesses, seeds, pentagrams, virgins, harvests, and juice—plop all of that together and lo, centuries of female-centric apple play is born.” Drawing on those British methods for predicting future love, witchcraft combines the pentagram of the apple as a fertility symbol with the searching for future husbandry, making the innocent party game of mid-century America seems a bit more sinister. Some parties hung the apples from a string and tried to get them that way. Magic-minded British women would also sleep with the bobbed apple under their pillow to predict their dream partner, or eat an apple while looking in a mirror: He was sure to pop up in the looking glass.
Rev. Sarah Heartsong of Heartsong Healing Arts, Inc., in Shelton, Washington, explains to The Takeout that “The apple is sacred for so many reasons to people who center their spirituality in nature,” because it symbolizes the circle of life, and rebirth. “When you cut the apple across the center you show a pentacle full of seeds, which reminds us also of a flower... that which the fruit came from, which created the seed and which will feed the seed to become a tree to make blossoms and more fruit,” continuing the life cycle. She says that the bucket in apple-bobbing is similar to a witches’ cauldron, so that “In the instance of bobbing for apples, it is facing the fear of drowning in the cauldron of life, death, and rebirth and pulling from that void the essence of survival, the fruit… food. This is the time of facing death and its role in life head on.”
Facing the cauldron of rebirth in my house, if I was trying to grab the apple of my husband, according to ritual, our relationship is doomed. Bobbing for apples is really, really hard. Or at least, it is if you’re doing it correctly. My son and I first tried it out by putting some apples in a bowl of water. He chomped own hard and got one right away; I needed a few more tries. When my husband came home from work, we tried to get him on it, and he immediately scoffed at us. “Your apples have to be floating higher. Yours are too low, so you can get them off the bottom of the bowl. It’s like picking up an apple with your teeth from the table.”
So we got a deeper bowl, put our hands behind our back, and tried again: much, much more difficult. Should we have been using softer apples? Were apples smaller in olden times? We had a lot of theories, but surmise we lacked the skills of apple-bobbers of the past.
In addition to the impossibility of the modern-day apple-bobbing task, there’s another factor pointing to why apple-bobbing may have declined in popularity: It’s doesn’t seem very sanitary. Slobbering your mouth over several apples while your friends—or worse, the germ-filled factories that are your kids and their friends—try to do the same seems like a very unwise practice in the cold-and-flu season. Still, there’s some dispute whether it actually spreads germs—in 2010, organizers of an “Apple Day” celebration in Manchester, England banned apple bobbing over sanitary fears, and instead, handed out chopsticks (this seems magnitudes more difficult). An official for the National Health Service told the Daily Mail, however, that the risk for infection was “very low.”
At least we’ll always have the Great Pumpkin. For the rest of us: donut on a string, anyone?