I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
For centuries, newlywed couples have jumped over a broomstick as part of their wedding ceremony. The origin of the custom is obscure, but it was common among enslaved people in America. Since the 1970s, the practice has been revived.
The Origin of Broomstick Jumping
One school of thought says the ritual has its roots in Romani tradition. Romani travellers were marginalized and ostracized throughout Europe, and their traditional marriages were not recognized by the church as lawful.
Part of their wedding ritual involved jumping over a broom—also known as a besom. The marriage could be annulled by jumping over a broom backwards, thereby avoiding the cost of expensive divorce lawyers.
The Welsh, Scots, and Druids lay claim to the practice, but the Druid boast has to be viewed with suspicion because there is no written record of their pre-historic culture.
Some African-Americans state that the ritual began in their continent of origin. Again, there is no firm agreement among social anthropologists as to whether Africa is the birthplace of jumping the broom.
The Atlantic World
Sorting out who gets bragging rights for creating the broom-jumping concept is impossible because it seems to have appeared in several different locations at roughly the same time. So, this is where we meet the concept of the Atlantic World.
Emily Casey is with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She describes the Atlantic World as “the interconnected web of social and financial economies that bound together the peoples and nations of Europe, West Africa, and North and South America from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century.”
The trade in slaves was westbound and the commerce of sugar, mahogany, cotton, tobacco, and other commodities was eastbound. Piggy-backing on the sailing ships were cultural practices, artistic styles, and ideas about social construction. It seems likely that jumping the broomstick at weddings was a product of this exchange.
An early depiction of the association between broomsticks and nuptials appears in a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (above). His 1559 work contains 126 portrayals of Dutch proverbs. In the top left-hand corner of the painting a young couple is seen grabbing a furtive embrace underneath a broomstick that pokes out from a window.
The Broomstick and Witchcraft
Common among many claimants to inventing the tradition is the association of the broom with witchcraft and the ability of its practitioners to mess with the peaceful harmony of the marital union. By jumping over the broomstick couples were stating “our love will defend us against whatever evil sorcerers can throw at us.”
The connection between witches and brooms goes back a long way. The earliest known depiction of a witch astride a broom dates to 1451.
Writer Sarah Pruitt notes that “the association between witches and brooms may have roots in a pagan fertility ritual . . .” It was widely believed that the broomsticks played a role in the evil rituals and orgies that witches were supposed to engage in.
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In 1470, the theologian Jordanes de Bergamo wrote that “the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.”
None of these allegations against witches can be trusted, but in the days when superstitions ruled daily life they were widely believed. This led to the connection between broomsticks and the malevolent behaviour of witches.
A Practice among Marginalized Communities
Another common factor in the broomstick-jumping tradition is that it’s usually found in communities that were living on the fringes of society.
Historian Tyler D. Parry says “It provided them with a ceremonial process for securing their marital bond when few other options were available to their communities.”
It has been recorded among such disparate groups as poor whites in the Appalachians and Cajun people in Louisiana.
There was no community more cut off from mainstream society than the slaves on American and Caribbean plantations; it was here that the broom-jumping ceremony was widely practiced.
The African Claim
Slaves were denied the right to have a legally recognized marriage so they devised their own rites and ceremonies.
In 1993, writer Harriette Cole published her book Jumping the Broom: The African-American Wedding Planner. In it she argued that slaves used the broom as a cultural reminder of their African background.
But, professor of Africana studies Maulana Karenga begs to differ. His view is that the broomstick is a symbol of the forced labour imposed on Black people by slave owners and has nothing to do with Africa.
However, bringing broomstick jumping as a wedding tradition into the modern era is strong within the African-American community of the United States. Harriette Cole’s book popularized the practice as did the Roots television series of 1977.
University of California folklorist Alan Dundes is puzzled by the attraction that “a custom which slaves were forced to observe by their white masters has been revived a century later by African Americans as a treasured tradition.”
Jumping the broom is also making appearances at the weddings of white people, which has caused some mutterings about cultural appropriation. But, that argument is thin on historical support given that the background of the custom is so multicultural.
- Carrying the bride over the threshold of the marital home goes back to the medieval era. It was believed to protect the couple from the intrusion of evil spirits.
- According to English folklore, a spider appearing in a wedding dress was supposed to be an omen of good fortune.
- The bride's wedding veil goes back to Ancient Greece and its purpose is to keep those pesky evil spirits away.
- Getting married on a rainy day indicates the marriage will be a fertile one.
- “Why Do Witches Ride Brooms? The History Behind the Legend.” Sarah Pruitt, History.com, October 19, 2020.
- “Jumping the Broom: The Surprising Multicultural Origins of a Black Wedding Ritual.” Tyler D. Parry, University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
- “ ‘Jumping the Broom’: On the Origin and Meaning of an African American Wedding Custom.” Alan Dundes, The Journal of American Folklore, Summer 1996.
- “Jumping the Broom Wedding Tradition.” Justine Wykerd, just-celebrations.co.uk, September 1, 2018.
- “Visual Culture of the Atlantic World.” Emily Casey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2018.
- “Broomstick Weddings.” Tyler D. Parry, Aeon, December 14, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Canute Limarider from USA on December 24, 2020:
So fascinating! I'd not even heard of it, and yet it's such rich tradition in so many places. Thanks for this very informative, well-written article, Rupert. Much appreciated.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 24, 2020:
And, best seasonal greetings to you Peggy.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 24, 2020:
Thanks for sharing information about that interesting custom, and the history behind it. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 24, 2020:
And, a merry Christmas to you Ann.
Ann Carr from SW England on December 23, 2020:
Really interesting. I only remember this expression from a song by Brenda Lee and I could never work out the reason for that phrase. Now I know! Thanks, Rupert!
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 22, 2020:
Very interesting article.