As a child, one of the dubious highlights of the annual Fall Festival at the elementary school was bobbing for apples—an unhygienic affectation common to the Northeast, where small children and some adults stick their faces in a tub of water, scrabbling for apples. This tradition—which hits a little different during a pandemic—in fact goes back hundreds of years, and has involved varying ratios of danger, slobber, and romance.
In this engraving above from 1550, four men participate in what I think is a variation of Snap-Apple, a game that tasked its participants with trying to catch an apple dangling on a string. These monks seem to be playing a less-dangerous version of a more common game, described by Mental Floss:
Like bobbing for apples, the game had players catch apples in their mouths without using their hands. To make things even more difficult, apples were placed on one end of a wooden plank hung horizontally from the ceiling which was then spun in circles. Chomping at an apple as it whipped around the room was only half the challenge. At the other end of the board was a burning candle: Players who didn’t retrieve the apple in time risked getting walloped in the face with molten candle wax.
Personally, I’m in favor of Snap-Apple and its frisson of danger. I’m scared of fire and no one wants to get hit in the face with hot wax, but that’s what we call motivation.
However, the game and the holiday with which it is associated weren’t always about ghosts and scary stuff—once, it was about finding love. According to a 2015 blog written by Daniel Gifford, former manager of museum advisory committees at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Halloween used to be a holiday for romance. Trick or treating didn’t gain popularity or traction in the United States until sometime after World War II, so traditionally, Halloween was a time for people to have house parties.
Typically set in the domestic spaces of the parlor, dining room, or kitchen, these parties involved decorating, organizing games, sending out invitations, and maintaining social relationships—in other words, all things that were seen as part of the feminine sphere. So while men were certainly involved in Halloween, including evolving traditions of tricking and pranking, Halloween in the early 1900s could largely be described as a feminine holiday—organized around and for women.
These parties, organized for women, were also great entry points for single ladies looking for love to try their hand at games like bobbing for apples, which were really just about trying to predict their romantic future. Perhaps that’s what these enterprising young adults are doing.
In one popular version of the game, girls would secretly mark apples before tipping them into a barrel of water. Apples float, and as the girls’ potential sweethearts ducked to catch the fruit with their teeth, future couplings were determined — or foretold.
Girls also continued the tradition of using apple peels to divine their romantic destiny. Every fall, communities in New England would prepare mountains of apples for the great kettles of apple butter that were put up for the winter. An eligible young lady would try to peel an apple in a single unbroken strip, toss the peel over her shoulder, and peer nervously to see what letter the peel formed on the floor: This was the initial of her future husband.
So the activity that now occupies children for twenty minutes at a fall festival actually got its start as a primitive form of a dating app. How nice, and germy.