The practice of couples who “jump the broom” during wedding ceremonies is both an African American custom as well as a neo-pagan custom.
In contrast to many West African traditions recognized and included in African American wedding ceremonies, the practice of “jumping the broom” is a wholly American addition that developed out of the institution of African slavery in the United States. Shortly after the introduction of slavery to the country, the right to legal marriage was taken away from the enslaved.
Slaveholders considered the Africans property, and as property, they had no rights in the eyes of the law. The owners also feared that legal marriage and family bonds had the potential to lead to organization and revolt. Marriage rituals were important events to the Africans who came from numerous richly ceremonial cultures.
When faced with the loss of the right to marry, many, ingrained with the significance of the marriage since childhood, created new rituals with what was on hand. Taking vows in the presence of a witness and then leaping over the handle of a broom became the common practice to create a recognized union. Incorporating “jumping the broom” into modern weddings is just one way African Americans today celebrate their cultural heritage.
Neo-pagans have borrowed this simple practice from the African American community, and have incorporated it into their handfastings. Many pagans, as well as non-pagans, now associate “jumping the broom” with pagan handfastings. For pagans not of African American decent, including a broom in the ceremony is appropriate. The broom represents a threshold. The handfasted couple, although still individuals, begin a new life together.
Jumping over the broom represents crossing this threshold into new territory, a life vitally connected to another’s. The leap that the couple takes over the broom is also symbolic. Starting a new life with another person does require a “leap of faith”. But by taking the leap, the individuals make a gesture of dedication to working together through the tough times ahead.
Brooms are also symbols of the hearth, the center of the new family being created. The broom also holds other significance specific to Neo-pagan and Wiccan beliefs.
Other comments on broom jumping
More people are familiar with broom-jumping’s use in African American wedding ceremony, than they are with pagans’ use of this custom.
An English custom was for the groom to hold the broom parallel to the floor on one side of the room where the reception was held, with the unmarried men at the other side of the room. Then, at a signal, the men raced across the room and the first one to grab the handle was to be the next one to marry. Alternately, some Pennsylvania German brides were tossed over the broom by unmarried women.
In some cultures, it was thought that in order to bring prosperity to their home, the first things a new wife should bring into the couples home was a broom and either a box of salt or a head of garlic.
Another European folk belief stated that the groom’s mother could define what sort of woman her son’s new wife was through the use of a broom. The groom’s mother would arrive at the couples new home before they did, and would lay a broom across the threshold. If the bride picked up the broom before entering, she would be a good housekeeper; alternately, if she just stepped over it, she would be a lazy wife. (A similar belief states that if the bride didn’t just step over the broom she was a witch. If she didn’t pick up the broom, and immediately did step over it, she might be lazy, but at least she wasn’t a witch!)