When you think of Halloween, you may think of pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn…but apples? Well, apples were a symbol of Halloween long before American pumpkins. Halloween as we know it is rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions surrounding Samhain, a fire festival that marked the end of the harvest and beginning of winter in the Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, etc.
It was a festival not unlike our modern New Year's Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new; and so there was much divination and fortune-telling. As the magical time between one year and the next, it was a time when the souls of the dead would return, and malevolent spirits and fairies could come and go freely.
Now, apples have always played a magical role in Celtic stories and myths, a symbol of fruitfulness, fruit of the gods, a means to immortality. In the Ulster Cycle tales, the soul of the king Cú Roí was hidden in an apple in the stomach of a salmon that appeared once every seven years. His enemy, the warrior Cúchulainn once escaped death by following the path of a rolling apple. The Apple Tree is the holy tree of the Druids, seen as a connection to other worlds and magical isles.
In fact, in the 7th and 8th centuries the ancient Irish Brehon Laws classed the Apple tree among the ‘seven nobles of the woods’ along with Ash and Oak, Hazel and Holly. The fine for cutting down one of these trees was 5 milk cows, and double that if the tree belonged to the local chieftain.
Now, as Samhain marked the end of the summer harvests, all apples were to be picked by the time the celebrations began. After that, unpicked fruit was left on the trees for the spirits, as the puca, or evil fairies, spat on any un-harvested apples to make them inedible.
So apples were aplenty on October 31st, used for apple cider, apple tarts, apple cakes, and apple dumplings baked for the feasting. Apples were put out to feed the spirits that were abroad that night, and the magical apple naturally found its way into the games and fortune-telling as well.
A traditional Scottish way of divining one's future spouse was to peel an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. As it falls to the floor, it shapes the first letter of the lucky future spouse’s name.
Young unmarried folks everywhere would try to bite into an apple floating in a tub of water; the first to get one would be the first to marry. The Scots called this apple-dooking, we call it apple-bobbing. Snap-apple was the same idea, but no easier, as the apples one sought to bite were hanging by a string; to bite one was to be blessed in the New Year.
So may the blessing of the Celt’s magical apple be with you this Halloween eve, and may you catch the apple you desire.
For the Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle. Slainte.