Apple bobbing: British game of sweet, sour or rotten courting

apple bobbing

Bobbing for apples is a fun fall tradition for young and old. | Photo courtesy of Michele Warmund, MU Extension.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — According to some traditions, apple bobbing can foretell love and heartbreak.

University of Missouri Extension horticulturist Michele Warmund says bobbing for apples was central to courting in Great Britain in days gone by. Each floating apple represented a potential husband. With one successful try, a young woman was destined to marry her desired mate. Two attempts meant that her love interest would court her, but the relationship would be ill-fated. If it took three or more tries to snag an apple, the marriage was not meant to be.

Other versions of apple bobbing evolved from the original game, says Warmund. In one variant, the first to retrieve some fruit would find her love and marry first. Another version included a bit of repose after the game: After bobbing for an apple, the young lady would place the apple under her pillow. Her dreams would reveal her future spouse.

Later, as the game evolved in Scotland and Ireland, a young lass would bob for an apple and then peel it. She twirled the peel above her head three times and threw it over her shoulder. When it landed, its shape would reveal the first initial of her future husband.

The Celts celebrated the end of harvest with Samhain, a festival that included bobbing for apples. Irish immigrants to America brought customs and celebrations from their homeland. Fall apple picking and bobbing morphed into Halloween traditions, says Warmund. Other apple-type games for young and old include races and relays that involve passing an apple to others by various means or balancing the fruit on a person’s head until they reach their destination without dropping it.

Traditionally, pre-washed apples are placed in a tub of water and each person tries to chomp into some fruit in hopes of snagging a tasty treat. More recently, the threat of spreading germs in the pursuit of floating fruit has inspired more hygienic variations. For example, apples can be suspended from above by a string, with each participant biting into their own designated treat, says Warmund.

Whether beloved or jilted, Missourians can still enjoy the state’s vast variety of tasty apples. Missouri-grown apples harvested during October include Braeburn, Fuji, Arkansas Black, Granny Smith, Mutsu, Rome, Stayman Winesap and York. Local grocers also sell many other apples, including Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Envy, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious.

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