The Fiery Halloween Tradition That Gave Us Bobbing for Apples

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iStock

Bobbing for apples, which is sometimes comparable to dunking your head in a cesspool of saliva, wasn’t always the kid-friendly activity we know today. Early versions of the game played in England on Halloween night lacked the tub of water, but they did include fire, hot wax, and a lot more injuries to the face.

Written recordings of Snap-Apple date back to at least the 14th century. 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.

The 1833 painting below, titled Snap-Apple Night, depicts a round of the game in action. A few years after it was made, a writer for The Literary Gazette, and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences described the image in detail:

"... see the open mouth of the adventurous peasant who is going to make a bite at the fruit,—and what a mouth!—the sweet child at his foot seems to look with wonder at its capacity. Look at the fellow behind him grinning with pain, having made an unsuccessful bite, and caught the candle instead of the apple; and see that hand thrust from behind a backward group, giving the machine a malicious twitch to increase its speed …"

Snap-Apple Night, Daniel MacliseWikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite its risks, Snap-Apple was a beloved part of the harvest season in England and Ireland. The tradition became so popular that it was literally synonymous with Halloween, with many people referring to October 31 as "Snap-Apple Night." In Wales, the date was sometimes called "Snotching Night" in reference to the act of snatching or "snotching" the apples from the beam.

As the holiday evolved, less fiery apple-centric games began popping up beneath the Snap-Apple umbrella. According to The New York Times, one iteration of the game had players struggle to wrangle an apple with their mouths as it hung from the ceiling by a string. Superstition held that whoever succeeded in biting the fruit first would be the first to walk down the aisle, reflecting the days when Halloween was as much a time for romance as it was for horror.

Today, only one version of the game is still played at Halloween parties: the one that requires participants to dunk their faces into a pool of lukewarm water. Like Snap-Apple, bobbing for apples often ends with ruined clothing, but at least related visits to the emergency room are rare.

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What Are Sugar Plums?

Marten Bjork, Unsplash
Marten Bjork, Unsplash

Thanks to The Nutcracker and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," sugar plums are a symbol of the holidays. But what are sugar plums, exactly? Like figgy pudding and yuletide, the phrase has become something people say (or sing) at Christmastime without knowing the original meaning. Before it was the subject of fairy dances and storybook dreams, a sugar plum was either a fruitless candy or a not-so-sweet euphemism.

According to The Atlantic, the sugar plums English-speakers ate from the 17th to the 19th century contained mostly sugar and no plums. They were made by pouring liquid sugar over a seed (usually a cardamom or caraway seed) or almond, allowing it to harden, and repeating the process. This candy-making technique was called panning, and it created layers of hard sugar shells. The final product was roughly the size and shape of a plum, which is how it came to be associated with the real fruit.

Before the days of candy factories, these confections could take several days to make. Their labor-intensive production made them a luxury good reserved for special occasions. This may explain how sugar plums got linked to the holidays, and why they were special enough to dance through children's heads on Christmas Eve.

The indulgent treat also became a synonym for anything desirable. This second meaning had taken on darker connotations by the 17th century. A 1608 definition from the Oxford English Dictionary describes a sugar plum as “something very pleasing or agreeable, esp. when given as a sop or bribe.” Having a "mouthful of sugar plums" wasn't necessarily a good thing, either. It meant you said sweet words that may have been insincere.

As true sugar plums have fallen out of fashion, demand for Christmas candy resembling the actual fruit has risen. You can now buy fancy candied plums and plum-flavored gummy candies for the holidays, but if you want something closer to the classic sugar plum, a Jordan almond is the more authentic choice.