Given the middle name Samhain, due to a scheduled induction on Halloween night, my youngest daughter Éloïse was born three years ago today, just days shy of her namesake celebration. Despite the early arrival, our aptly dubbed 'spooky kid' possesses all the cliché loves for the harvest season. From pumpkins and ghost stories, dressing up, falling leaves she loves it all including an almost insatiable appetite for apples (she eats 2-3 a day sometimes!)
Curious about how her favourite fruit fits into Scottish traditions, I learned more about the link between apples, matchmaking, and games (with the latter sometimes feeling more Squid Game than MASH!)
If you are new to this celebration or need a quick refresher, Samhain (pronounced Saw-In) is an annual Gaelic harvest festival from October 31st to November 1st. It marks the arrival of winter and the 'darker half' of the year (about autumn equinox and winter solstice) and is one of the four festivals associated with the Celtic seasonal calendar. Those who celebrate Samhain believe that during this time, the partition between the physical and spiritual world is at its thinnest, making it easy to make predictions and communicate with spirits.
Halloween Origins with Apples, Nuts & Kale
With a heightened connection between the dead and the living, it's easy to see how traditional celebrations such as Samhain have contributed to modern Halloween lore. A common name for Halloween was 'Nut Crack Night' to commemorate the eating of nuts collected earlier in the season.
Children, were given apples and nuts as gifts during this time, and in particular, apples were intertwined with Samhain traditions around matchmaking and fortune telling.
Games & Match Making Lore
Events & parties were commonplace during Samhain much like Halloween, however, they were more centred around family reunions and divination. During get-togethers, young men and women played games involving apples to predict good fortune and predict luck with potential suitors.
In the UK & US, attendees played Apple
Bobbing, aka 'Apple Ducking' (or the common name I grew up hearing Bobbing for Apples). The object of the game was to remove apples from a tub of water with only their teeth. In the UK version, the bottom of the tub would include a silver dollar, and the winner would keep the dollar and said to be the first to marry.
Snap-Apple is another popular game dating back to druids played at social parties. The host would tie an apple to a string with a lit candle at the other end. To win, participants needed to catch the apple without getting burned. A less violent version of this game is called Tethered Apple, which involves suspending an apple from the ceiling with a string and asking participants to eat the apple with their arms tied behind their backs. Sometimes players would be blindfolded and other times not, but the winner would have a successful marriage within the year in both cases.
Pictured above: "Snap-Apple Night" by Irish artist Daniel Maclise, influenced by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832
Other games involving apples focused less on the whole fruit and more on its peels and seeds, which had their own divination. Guests would peel an apple and throw the skin over their left shoulder, and the peel formed the first letter of their true love's name. Seeds worked as a kind of Pagan Magic Eight Ball, but instead of yes or no questions, the person would assign each eye opposing options: rich/poor, married/spinster, etc.
Once the fortune is secured and closed eyelids adorned with a seed, the first seed to fall confirms their future.
While we don't necessarily play these games today as part of matchmaking rituals, it is interesting to see how variations live on as covert throwbacks to Samhain in our collective depiction of Halloween.
Source + Additional Resources
This post is by no means all-encompassing of this season's deep roots and traditions, so if you are interested in learning more, I recommend checking out the book I used for some of my research: Samhain: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Halloween.