Every day is Halloween now.

— Photo by Caleb Zahnd

Bobbing for apples is a messy business.

People of a certain age will recall with fondness that, when the extended family gathered on Halloween night for food, conversation, and games, some of the kids got carried away with laughter. You could hear them across the room.

One of the games our family played on the hallowed eve — of el Día de los Muertos — was ducking or bobbing for apples. When I tell older folks about it, they say their family played it too.

Several dozen apples were set afloat in a large metal wash tub filled with maybe a foot of water; one of the adults overseeing the project — while the kids turned their backs so as not to cheat — pressed a coin into the flesh of one of the apples, covered the scar and set it afloat with the rest; you couldn’t tell which one it was. Back then, the prize was a dime or a quarter, which everyone liked.

One by one — I think by age — we kids knelt beside the tub and plunged our head deep down under to pin the winner against the side or bottom of the tub with grinned teeth.

It wasn’t easy; there was a time-limit; some of the kids couldn’t hold their breath and quickly shot back up gasping for air. The sorry soul took two or three deep breaths and was back under.

Part of the giddiness came from how crazy a person got, getting wet — hair, shirt, the floor — some panicked when they hit the water but it never stopped them. An aunt or an uncle stood by with a towel to help mop the sops off.

And someone always got the coin. Everybody was happy, not just the person who “won” but everybody because it was such good fun. I know it had to do with — at a subconscious level — reaffirming family. Plunging into a tub of water was a small price to pay.

No one in the family’s collected data on the event and I don’t recall anyone who won, or even if I did, but there was no envy; winning was luck.

And at no time were we told that a win signified something more than the coin, for example that the game foretold something about the future.

But for centuries in Europe, communities believed that that game, and divination games like it, foretold what was in store for the winner — he would be first to get married or the first to have a child. At some weddings now, the bride throws her bouquet into a group of “eligible” women and the person who catches it will be the first married.

Games of future-telling on Halloween are remnants of the life of herd-tending communities who considered it the eve of a new year — on November First, a new life-cycle began.

The famed Irish writer, Patrick Joyce, says in his beautiful two-volume classic “The Social History of Ancient Ireland,” that the herd-tending communities divided “The whole year .... into two parts — Summer from 1st May to 1st November, and winter from 1st November to 1st May.”

On the eve of the new year, when the light of day had already shifted, the pensive mind attended to the other world and the soul grew open to the future.

Even kings wanted to know. Ireland’s fifth-century Dathi, when visiting Sligo one Halloween, told the local druid to find out his future.

The story says the priest went up a hill and spent the night thinking; when he came down, he told Dathi what he saw — ancient sources say it all came true.

For those of lesser means, and without a druid to call upon, bobbing for apples and the “nut game” were their Halloween seers.

In the nut game, a young couple wanting to know what was in store for them, placed two nuts by the fireplace; the woman was one, the man, the other. How the nuts behaved in the heat foretold things to come. Friends and family looked on with delight.

If the nuts burned together, the couple would be married; if it took a long time, their marriage would last; and if the fire burned bright, happiness would be theirs.

But if one of the nuts got too hot and jumped away from the other, the pair would go their separate ways  — there’d be no wedding — and the nut who jumped away was responsible!

One of the paradoxes of Halloween is that its “ceremonies” have long dealt with not only the future but the past as well. The hallowed eve was a time when the community thought about the dead: friends, relatives, and saints who helped along the way.

Ethnologists say on Halloween the spirits of the dead came around the house looking for warmth, a cup of tea, and conversation, and then they’d be gone — the extended family in attendance.

Nobody ducks for apples any more. At some point, parents didn’t want their kids sticking their salivary mouths into a pool of water where other salivary mouths had been, even those of kin.

The game changed to chasing an apple on a string but the giddy laughter of diving into a tub of splashing water was gone — plus (sociologically) the family had radically changed.

Now, with the coronavirus upon us, bobbing for apples will never be played again, and disappear from cultural consciousness, except for the ethnologists. The human family has one less tool to consider its future.

In the old days, the ghosts wanted to come inside for warmth but now, with the virus, “inside” is a place of danger, an enemy, and, with winter coming (we’re told) it will worsen. Where will the dead go?

And what other means do we have to consider our future: as a family, a state, a nation, a species? We’re still struggling to talk to each other without ill-will and rancor — wasting precious psychological energy.

Halloween? Every day is Halloween now. Every day is the eve of a new dawn. Some of us have learned the benefit of wearing a mask but a lot are still having a hard time speaking with an open heart.