Jumping the Broom: Besom Weddings

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Jumping the broom has seen a resurgence in popularity. Photo by morgan.cauch via Flickr/Creative Commons/(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Along with the popularity of handfasting ceremonies, there has been a resurgence in interest among Pagans in the idea of a "besom wedding." This is a ceremony also referred to as "jumping the broom." Although typically this is assumed to be a ceremony derived from the slave culture of the American south, there is also evidence that besom weddings took place in some parts of the British Isles.

The Slave Era of the American South

During the early days of the American south, when slavery was still a legal institution, slaves were not legally allowed to marry one another.

Instead, a ceremony was held where the couple would jump over a broom in front of witnesses, either together or separately. No one is really sure where the tradition originated. Danita Rountree Green, author of Broom Jumping: A Celebration of Love, suggests the practice came from Ghana, but she also says there's no hard proof of the custom existing there. Once African-Americans were legally allowed to marry in the United States, the tradition of broom-jumping virtually disappeared -- after all, it was no longer needed. However, there has been a resurgence in popularity, due in no small part to the miniseries Roots.

Mechon is a Pagan from North Carolina, and is of African descent. She says, "My family is die-hard Southern Baptist, so I had to get married in a church or my grandmother would have had a heart attack. So we did the Baptist wedding ceremony with the pastor, and then we went outside and had a broom jumping celebration on top of it, which was more earthy and free-spirited.

My ancestors came from Ghana as part of the Atlantic slave trade, and while we did the broom jumping, we had Ghanian art on display and drum music playing and people clapping and chanting. It was a beautiful way of connecting my family today with honoring the spirits of the people who came before us."

According to African American Registry, "Jumping over the broom symbolized the wife's commitment or willingness to clean the courtyard of the new home she had joined. Furthermore, it expressed her overall commitment to the house. It also represented the determination of who ran the household. Whoever jumped highest over the broom was the decision maker of the household (usually the man). The jumping of the broom does not add up to taking a "leap of faith." The irony is that practice of jumping the broom was largely discarded after Emancipation in America, which was consistent with the eventual fall of the Ashanti Confederacy in Ghana in 1897 and the coming of British customs. Jumping the Broom did survive in the Americas, especially in the United States, among slaves brought from the Asante area. This particular Akan practice of jumping the broom was picked up by other African ethnic groups in the Americas and used to strengthen marriages during slavery among their communities."

The United Kingdom

In some areas of Wales, a couple could be married by placing a birch broom at an angle across the doorway. The groom jumped over it first, followed by his bride. If neither of them knocked it out of place, the wedding was a go.

If the broom fell down, it was considered that the marriage was doomed to failure, and the whole thing was called off. If the couple decided they were unhappy within the first year of marriage, they could divorce by jumping back out the door, over the broom. More information on this can be found in T. Gwynn Jones' 1930 publication, Welsh Folklore.

The late scholar and folklorist Alan Dundes makes the argument that the tradition of jumping a broom originated among England's Rom population. Dundes also points out that the broom is highly symbolic, saying, "the symbolic significance of the ritual to be the 'stepping over' as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. If a woman's jumping over a broomstick produces a child, one could reasonably assume that the broomstick has phallic properties*."

Modern Broom Jumping

Until marriage equality for all couples became the law of the United States, in June 2015, some gay and lesbian couples adopted the symbolic broom-jumping, since they were not legally able to marry in many places.

Reverend Heron, who runs a Pagan & Wiccan Wedding and Handfastings blog, writes "I normally recommend that a new broom be purchased just for the ceremony in order to avoid bringing prior energies into the ceremony, however, a broom can be part of the preparations for a wedding as well. The broom can be decorated with ribbons, flowers, crystals, charms or other items which the couple would like to help symbolize their "fresh start." After the ceremony, the broom is hung above the main entrance door of the home, as a daily reminder of the ceremony and the new life it brings."

* Jumping the Broom: A Further Consideration of the Origins of an African American Wedding Custom, by C. W. Sullivan III, The Journal of American Folklore 110 (438). University of Illinois Press: 466–69.

 

Photo Credit: morgan.cauch on Flickr/Licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)