Why Do We Bob for Apples on Halloween?

Here's what we know about the origin of bobbing for apples on Halloween

Bobbing for Apples
Bobbing for apples, c. 1910. Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

Apple bobbing, also called bobbing for apples, is a game often played on Halloween, usually by children. The game is played by filling a tub or a large basin with water and putting apples in the water. Because apples are less dense than water, they will float at the surface. Players then try to catch one with their teeth without using their arm. Sometimes the arms are tied behind the back to prevent cheating.

Origins

Some people claim that the Halloween custom of bobbing for apples dates all the way back to pre-Christian Ireland and the pagan festival of Samhain, though there's little, if any, historical evidence to support this.

Apple bobbing is also said to have begun with the worship of Pomona, the ancient Roman goddess of fruits, trees, and gardens in whose honor an annual festival was supposedly held every November first. But that claim, too, stands on shaky historical ground, as some historians question whether such a festival ever actually took place.

We can say with more certainty that apple bobbing goes back at least a few hundred years, that it does appear to have originated in the British Isles (Ireland and Scotland in particular), and that it originally had something to do with divination (fortune telling).

Divination game

British author W. H. Davenport Adams, who saw connections between a popular belief in the prognosticative power of apples and what he called "old Celtic fairy lore," described the bobbing game as it existed around the turn of the 20th century 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 in Great Britain included "snap apple" — similar to bobbing for apples except the fruit is hung from the ceiling on strings — and placing nutshells named after prospective love interests near a fire to see how they would burn. If they burned slowly and steadily, it meant true love was in the offing;  if they cracked or popped and flew off the hearth, it indicated a passing fancy. Accordingly, Halloween used to be known as "Snap-Apple Night" or "Nutcrack Night" in places where these customs were observed.

More on Halloween Customs
Why Do We Carve Pumpkins on Halloween?
Why Do We Wear Costumes and Go Trick-or-Treating?
A Quick Guide to the Origin and History of Halloween

Further Reading
Traditional Halloween Divination Games from Ireland - StartPage.ie
Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History - by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne