Tuesday, October 30, 2012


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

When it comes to the subject of Halloween, there are so many customs and traditions associated with the holiday that I was faced with a mighty big challenge about what I should write about. I decided to focus on three aspects: a traditional game you will not only find in the American West but other parts of the United States, the Pagan origins of Halloween, and the one city in the United States that showcases the best of Halloween each October.

Snap Apple Night:

Have you ever wondered where the traditions and games we often celebrate on Halloween first originated? For example, who thought up bobbing for apples? When and where did that particular game make its chilling debut? Picture the scene. Whilst planning a party to celebrate All Hallows Eve, along with tasty food, music and dancing, ideas are requested for games which might add to the evening’s merriment.

So, naturally, someone (whose name shall go down in infamy) suggests filling a big wooden tub with cold water and apples. Participants are then required to have their hands tied behind their backs, and told to try and grab an apple with their teeth as quickly as possible. Please note the apple must remain firmly affixed between the participant’s teeth as they lift their now drenched head to the delight of onlookers. Sometimes called apple bobbing, it is also known as dooking for apples in Scotland (where it is expected the head be submerged whilst trying to retrieve an apple). In Ireland, the game is known as Snap Apple. In fact, another word for Halloween (especially in County Kerry) is Snap Apple Night.

In the above painting by Daniel Maclise, the Irish artist captured the merriment and festivities of celebrating Snap Apple Night, including the game of snap apple. Maclise painted this piece from memory after attending a Halloween Party in Blarney, Ireland on 31 October 1832. Although young boys are gathered about the tub of water in Maclise’s painting for the ‘fun of it’, there is another connotation associated with the game based on the history of the apple tree, pagan beliefs, and romantic superstition.

Long, long ago, when the Romans brought the apple tree to ancient Britain, their fertility goddess Pomona was associated with the fruit-bearing tree. In fact, her name itself is derived from the Latin word for fruit, pomum, and the French word for apple, pomme. As fate would have it, since the Romans had associated fertility with the apple tree, so did the Celts. How, you might ask yourself? The answer can be found by slicing an apple in half. Ancient Celts saw that the seeds formed a pentagram-like shape and since the pentagram was the Celtic symbol for fertility, it was naturally determined that apples could (drumroll please) "determine marriages”.

In the "romantic" version of the Snap Apple Game, apples were suspended from a string. The same rule of arms being tied behind the back of each participant applied. Allegedly, if you were the first person to bite the apple, you would be the next person to marry. Other customs include being the first person to bite into the apple in which a coin had been hidden; in which case, you would be the first person at the party to sport a broken tooth. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. One can only assume the coins were added as an alternate tangible prize rather than the rather iffy divination that matrimony was in your near future. After all, a young miss might be content with the idea of becoming a bride whereas a young man might prefer the coin.

All fun aside, bobbing for apples is not without risk. Apart from catching a severe cold by repeatedly dunking your head into a bucket of cold water, there is a strong argument these days for cross-contamination of the water and apples among the participants. Of course, skilled mystery writer Agatha Christie also noted a rather glaring potential risk by using the chilling sport to drown a victim in her 1969 Hercule Poirot novel Hallowe’en Party.


As for Halloween itself, most of us have heard about the association with the Pagan holiday of Samhain(pronounced sah-win). A medieval Celtic festival, Samhain was considered (and still is by practicing Pagans) the most important day of their calendar. It is, in fact, the Celtic New Year. However, because of the time it took place, October 31st – November 1st, Samhain marked the end of harvesting (with all its blessings) and turned one’s thoughts toward preparing for the dark days of winter ahead. From a more paranormal perspective, Samhain is one of two days in the Pagan calendar (the other is Beltane) when the door to the Celtic Otherworld is opened, allowing souls of the dead to revisit their homes and loved ones. Faerie folk were also believed to cross the threshold from their world into ours.

However, because harmful spirits and mischievous faeries could also enter the mortal world, costumes were often worn in the highlands and isles of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, to disguise one’s self and provide protection from harm. Hence, the association between wearing costumes then and now cannot be ignored.

Bonfires were lit to ward off evil. Even the art of carving and lighting pumpkins and turnips can be traced back to Samhain as a means to ward off evil. The practice of “trick or treaters” going door-to-door has been tied to the Samhain traditions whereby boys would go to neighboring homes asking for food and fuel donations for the traditional bonfire. By contributing to this cause, one was certain to have good fortune.

However, Christian ties to Samhain were established in the 8th century by Pope Gregory III when he proclaimed November 1st of each year to be celebrated as All Saint’s Day. Sometimes called All Souls Day, this relocated holiday (it was originally held in May) was created to honor all saints and martyrs to the Christian faith. Strangely enough, it seems many of the Pagan traditions of Samhain were ‘grandfathered’ into the Christian Saint's day. For example, the day before All Saint’s Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve, and it was believed that on this night the barrier between the living and the dead was very thin – very much like the Pagan belief of the door to the Otherworld being opened on Samhain.


Salem, Massachusetts may be known as Witch City for 11 months of the year, but every October it becomes Halloween Town. Beginning October 1st of each year, amidst ghostly fog drifting in off the bay and chilled autumn winds sweeping down narrow streets where 17th and 18th century houses still bear the names of their original owners, throngs of visitors gather together to celebrate Halloween.

Something is happening every day in Salem during the month of October. The festivities include Haunted Harbor Cruises (offered by Mahi Mahi Cruises) where passengers tour Salem Sound and are entertained with tales of "ruthless pirates, haunted lighthouses and living monsters who wreak havoc on local ships to this day!" The stories may be chilling, but the ship is heated. Other activities include Ghost Hunting Excursions, a variety of Masquerade and Halloween Balls, Psychic Fairs, Ghost Walking Tours, and Trolley Rides that regale after-dark passengers with the spooky history of Salem.

You'll find magic shows and carnival rides that would tempt Harry Potter himself. Besides, in what other town can you find the New England Pirate Museum, the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch Dungeon Museum, and the Witch History Museum. There is even a shop that will custom make fangs for you!

Salem is an enchanting city in daylight, too, with stunning historical architecture, wonderful restaurants, beautiful New England scenery (especially in autumn), and one of the nation's largest museums, the Peabody Essex Museum.

So, whether your idea of celebrating Halloween includes a visit to a local haunted house, a stroll through a spooky cornfield maze, a costume party, chaperoning your favorite disguised youngster as they ring doorbells and recite the tried and true saying “Trick or Treat”, or just stay at home and sit back with a mug of spiced apple cider while reading a good ghost story, have a wonderful All Hallow’s Eve, a Blessed Samhain, and a truly Happy and Safe Halloween!

As always, thank you for stopping by Sweethearts of the West blog. ~ AKB


  1. Great post, Ashley. I'd love to go to Boston some October when Sandy is blowing in.

  2. Fun stuff! And I learned something, too! : ) Have a great Halloween!

  3. Awesome info! We visited Salem in October a few years ago and it was total Halloween. Their high school mascot is even The Witches. The sad thing...those 20 executed in the witch trials of 1692 were not witches at all. My upcoming YA deals with that.

    Re: Sandy. So many of the places we visited last fall during an Eastern Seaboard tour are now getting hammered. SO sad. Sending prayers...

  4. Carolyn, Well, we can be comforted that nothing like Sandy has hit the east coast in a century. But if I know the people of Salem, they will persevere and go on as best they can. We had planned to go there this year, but the boys opted for Comic Con in Austin and seeing the cast of Star Trek Next Generation. But I hope we can be in Salem next October for the fun!

  5. Hi Tanya - I love Salem and have visited there in April over the past two years. The Witch Trials of 1692 was a tragedy. I look forward to reading your YA! Happy Halloween. :)

  6. Thank you, Paty. Have a wonderful and safe Halloween! :)

  7. I love all of the traditions and how they could explain the different customs through these traditions. I think we miss it somehow here. It's more than trick or treating and bringing home the most full bag of candy.

    Nice and informative post.

  8. Ashley,
    Wonderful post! I really learned a lot from this. So many odd things about Halloween. I used to love that holiday as a kid, but now as I've gotten older, I find I'm always breathing a sigh of relief when it's over.

  9. Hi Paisley - I agree; it is always interesting to learn how different customs and traditions have evolved or been passed down through the ages. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  10. Hi Cheryl - Well, gotta admit,I didn't enjoy Halloween so much as a kid, but love it now. We've got the scary sound effects music playing, the fog machine running, and we all dress up at our house, even the hubby. Most of all, I love to see the trick or treaters and their costumes, especially the really little ones. :) Happy Halloween!

  11. What a fun, informative post! You truly did your homework, Ashley. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Snap Apple Day!

  12. Thank you, Lyn. Have a very Happy Halloween. :)

  13. Fascinating, Ashley--and I did not know anything about this. I mean, yes, I heard of bobbing for apples, but never was involved with such a thing, but the rest of it? A total mystery.
    Isn't there a drink on the market called Snap Apple? I don't remember for sure, but it seems so.
    Halloween, or whatever groups called it, was always beyond me and my life growing up. We attended a strict church that did not allow such things, so on Halloween the young people had "tacky parties," so we could dress up. Those were fun, and I never knew the difference.
    But my children learned about it--different church by then--and loved everything about it. Still, today, our son who has our only grandkids, all boys, now 15, 14, and 9--just love it. The whole family dresses up.
    It's amazing how very old customs are still held today.
    Thanks--as usual, you did an outstanding job.
    I do hope you're feeling better by now.

  14. Hi Celia - There is a beverage company called Snapple, but I don't think the name is derived from the Snap Apple game. Thank you for your comment and sharing your memories. There is so much that has been passed down from generations, and customs brought to this country that we don't always realize the origin or meaning. Just another thing I love about history and research.


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