Bobbing for apples dates back to the 14th century, and it has ties to courting rituals.
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Carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating are some of the most popular activities associated with Halloween, but it's not the only way to celebrate the autumnal holiday. Bobbing for apples is another mainstay of the Halloween season. "There are a lot of different regional variants, but usually it's pretty simple: apples are placed in a large tub of water, participants kneel before the tub and try to retrieve an apple by mouth alone," says Lisa Morton, an author, screenwriter, and Halloween historian. "Sometimes, coins or other objects are hidden in some apples, adding good luck to the victory of retrieving an apple; sometimes whoever can get the most apples will be declared the biggest winner."

While this game has become a common tradition around Halloween, do you know it's origin story?

kids bobbing for apples outdoors
Credit: Ryan Benyi Photography / Getty Images

The History of Bobbing for Apples

While the answer of who first bobbed for apples is still a mystery, there are some clues that point to when this tradition originated. "We do know that apple bobbing has been around since at least the 14th century, when an illuminated manuscript called The Luttrell Psalter depicted it in a drawing," says Morton.

According to History.com, the tradition is tied to love and romance instead of the traditional spookiness often linked to Halloween. Originally during this time period, females in Britain would bob their heads in water while attempting to bite into apples named for their male suitor. If the female bit into the apple after one try, they and their mate were fated for love. After the second try, the suitor would pursue the female, but their romance would eventually fade away. And if it took three times to bite into the apple, their courtship wouldn't last at all. Along the same lines of courtship, sometimes the game would be a race. The first person to bite into an apple would get married first. For even better luck, females believed that placing the bitten apple under their pillow at night would allow them to see their soulmate during their dreams.

Present-Day Bobbing for Apples Facts

History.com goes on to note that while apple bobbing lost popularity in Ireland and England by the 1800s, it picked back up again by the end of the century when Americans, who were descendants of these areas, brought back this tradition for Halloween gatherings in the United States. Today, bobbing for apples is simply a part of the seasonal fall activities. "Part of Halloween's allure is that it's also tied to harvest, since crops like corn, pumpkins, turnips, wheat, and apples were all traditionally harvested in the fall," explains Morton. "These crops have all figured into Halloween celebrations as a result, whether they're carved into grinning jack-o'-lanterns, used in fortune-telling rituals, turned into decorations, or—as with apples—employed in party games."

How to Play Bobbing for Apples

Want to bob for apples? Find out how to play this Halloween-centric game for the holiday:

  1. Take out a tub for the game (think: a bucket, bin, or large cooler).
  2. Fill the tub over halfway with slightly cold water.
  3. Add about one dozen apples to the tub of water, or an amount that will nearly fill the entire tub to make it challenging to bob for the fruit.
  4. Set a time of two minutes for each player to bob for apples.
  5. Each player will have a chance to bite into an apple during the timeframe (with their hands behind their back).
  6. The person who catches an apple in the quickest time wins the game!

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