My first memory of bobbing for apples goes back to my childhood days in Liverpool, England. We didn’t celebrate Hallowe’en in England back then (the North American style of Hallowe’en was adopted in the late 80s… ironically, based on much earlier traditions from Britain and Ireland!), but we did celebrate All Saints Day on November 1st and Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. For us, Guy Fawkes was the “big” celebration – collecting “a penny for the Guy”, fireworks, bonfires, candies, bobbing for apples (or trying to take a bit of one dangling from a string), and more. Sound familiar? Hmm.. kind of like Hallowe’en?
Through the history of the world, local traditions and cultural rituals have often been merged with that of other more dominant cultures through colonization, warfare, and so on. It’s not surprising that many of the traditions we consider “ours”, are either borrowed from other cultures or modified to mix the rich cultural heritage of both. And this is how bobbing for apples comes to us from two very different but rich cultures – Celtic Britain and the Roman Empire.
Where did this tradition originate?
The Celts saw the apple as a symbol of fertility AND divination, especially because the seeds of the apple form a pentagram when it is cut cross-wise (per the image to the right). Because apples were typically harvested at the final or third harvest festival – Samhain (“Summers End”) – rituals of divination were built into the celebration: Who would be married in the New Year? Who would bear a child? In those early agrarian cultures, survival depended on partnership, marriage and child-bearing.
The Roman invasion in 43 AD spread from Anglo-Saxon and Celtic England throughout the traditional Celtic lands of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, And yes, the Romans brought with them their own traditions such as their Pomona festival. The Roman goddess of the orchards (including fruit trees), Pomona, was also a symbol of fertility, and she was frequently symbolized with images of the apple. The Romans merged their Pomona Festival with the local Celtic Samhain festival, creating games around the bobbing of the apples. In one tradition, the first one to bite the apple – whether in a tub of water or dangling from a string – would be the first to marry in the New Year.
And in a further integration of cultures, Samhain was integrated into the new Christian religions and merged with All Saint’s Day – also known as All Hallow’s Day – on November 1st. The celebrations would begin at nightfall, the evening before All Saint’s Day, and became known as All Hallow’s Eve or All Hallow’s Evening…. and eventually Hallowe’en.
I now observe and celebrate the Celtic calendar (for some, this is also part of Wiccan and pagan traditions), in addition to the Christian calendar, and mark the end of summer at Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”) on October 31st / November 1st. Samhain is one of my favourite celebrations in the Celtic calendar.
And yes, I still bob for apples!