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The Surprising Origins of 8 Autumn Traditions

There’s more to autumn than pumpkin spice — it’s also filled with pumpkin pie, pumpkin patches, and even a semi-obscure sport known as punkin chunkin (not to mention other non-squash related customs). If you’ve ever wondered why you have the sudden urge to wander through a corn maze in the fall, or what it is about October that’s so conducive to bobbing for apples, read on — here are the surprising origins of eight autumn traditions.

Corn Mazes

Aerial view of giant corn maze in Pennsylvania
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In 1993, Joanne Marx and Don Frantz created the “Amazing Maize Maze,” a 1.92-mile labyrinth on three acres of land at Annville, Pennsylvania's Lebanon Valley College. Though they and other maize maze makers have a long tradition of hedge mazes to inspire them, the newer form distinguished itself in notable ways — namely, that corn mazes are usually cut in fun shapes or interesting images when seen from above, rather than basic geometric patterns. That, and they often have stacks of hay and piles of pumpkins around for pictures.

Leaf-Peeping

Aerial view of colorful trees in autumn
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This one goes back more than 1,200 years, which is another way of saying it didn’t originate in America. Rather, it appears we have Japan to thank for the custom. Their version of it, which carries the considerably more evocative name of momijigari (“autumn leaf hunting”), dates back to at least the Heian Era of 794-1185. A renaissance of sorts, that epoch brought about both visual art that celebrated the vibrant colors of fall and the endlessly influential Tale of Genji, which explicitly mentions “an imperial celebration of autumn foliage.”

As for how it became an American tradition, a professor of Asian art history has a theory: Japan and New England were connected via shipping routes, resulting in New Englanders being exposed to Japanese lacquerware featuring a maple-leaf motif that made them more inclined to seek out gorgeous leaves without traveling halfway across the world.

Oktoberfest

Group of people with large glasses of beer at Oktoberfest
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Beginning in the third weekend of September and lasting until the first Sunday in October, Oktoberfest has long served as an excuse for revelers to do as the Germans do and wet their whistle at the local beer hall (lederhosen optional). The first Oktoberfest was a wedding reception: On October 12, 1810, the citizens of Munich gathered at the city’s gates to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The event (known locally as d’Wiesn) was so popular that it took place again the following year — and the year after that, and so on and so forth until it became the world-famous festival of Bavarian culture that it is today.

Election Day

Person with a red "I Voted" sticker
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Though rarely thought of in the same way as apple cider and leaf-peeping, American elections take place in autumn for a reason. Out of consideration for farming schedules, Congress chose November (when the harvest was finished but it hadn’t usually begun to snow yet) in its 1845 decree. As for Tuesday? Weekends were a no-go due to church, and Wednesdays were off the table because farmers usually went to the market to sell their goods. Thus, Tuesday emerged as a sort of compromise, and the tradition stuck.

Bobbing for Apples

Bobbing for apples in a silver bucket
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It may not be as popular now as it was a century ago, but bobbing for apples persists as an autumnal activity, especially on Halloween. Long before kiddos dressed up on October 31, however, British singles played the game as a sort of courting ritual. Each apple represented a different eligible bachelor and, if the young woman bobbing for said apple bit into it on her first try, the two would live happily ever after; succeeding on the second attempt meant that the two would be together for a time but the romance would fade; and not getting it right until the third try foretold doom.

Punkin Chunkin

Close up of a pumpkin with pumpkins in the background
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What exactly is Punkin Chunkin? For the past two decades, “chunkers” have created slingshots, trebuchets, and even pneumatic cannons to hurl pumpkins as far as possible. The World Championship Punkin Chunkin Contest has taken place in Bridgeville, Delaware, every November since 1986, with First State native Bill Thompson claiming credit for inventing the sport.

Tailgating

Grilling vegetable skewers
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Tailgating is now a year-round activity at sporting events and concerts, but it's always been especially popular at football games. One theory posits that it dates all the way back to the first college football game, a contest between Rutgers and Princeton that took place in 1869, when some in attendance sat at their horses' “tail end” while grilling sausages before the game began. Another theory centers around the Green Bay Packers, whose fans are said to have coined the term “tailgating” when the cheeseheads first began supporting the team in 1919. Ever industrious, they positioned their trucks around the field and sat in the beds for comfortable viewing while enjoying their food and drinks.

Candy Corn

Candy corn
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It may be the year’s most polarizing candy, but its history is long and sweet. Candy corn dates back to the 1880s, when a confectioner at the Wunderle Candy Company began producing it under the even-less-appetizing name of Chicken Feed. The corn-shaped sugar molds were then manufactured by the Goelitz Confectionery Company, who made the product famous (you may now know Goelitz as Jelly Belly). More than 35 million pounds (or nine billion individual pieces) of candy corn are produced every year, so someone must like the stuff.

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