Jumping the broom is a phrase and custom relating to a wedding ceremony where the couple jumps over a broom. It has been suggested that the custom is based on an 18th-century idiomatic expression for "sham marriage", "marriage of doubtful validity"; it was popularized in the context of the introduction of civil marriage in Britain with the Marriage Act 1836.
There have also been suggestions that the expression may derive from an actual custom of jumping over a "broomstick" (where "broom" refers to the plant common broom rather than the household implement) associated with the gypsies (Romani) of the United Kingdom. especially those in Wales.
The custom of a marrying couple literally jumping over a broom is now most widespread among African Americans, popularized in the 1970s by the novel and miniseries Roots but originating in the mid 19th century as a practice in antebellum slavery in the United States.
References to "broomstick marriages" emerged in England in the mid-to-late 18th century, always to describe a wedding ceremony of doubtful validity. The earliest use of the phrase is in the 1764 English edition of a French work: the French text, describing an elopement, refers to the runaway couple hastily making un mariage sur la croix de l'épée (literally ‘marriage on the cross of the sword’), an expression the English translator freely renders as ‘performed the marriage ceremony by leaping over a broomstick’.
A 1774 usage in the Westminster Magazine also describes an elopement. A man who had taken his under-age bride off to France discovered it was as hard to arrange a legal marriage there as in England, but declined a suggestion that a French sexton might simply read the marriage service through before the couple as "He had no inclination for a Broomstick-marriage". In 1789 the rumoured clandestine marriage between the Prince Regent and Maria Fitzherbert is similarly referred to in a satirical song in The Times: "Their way to consummation was by hopping o’er a broom, sir".
Despite these allusions, research by the legal historian Professor R. Probert of Warwick University has failed to find any proof of an actual contemporary practice of jumping over a broomstick as a sign of informal union. Probert also points out that the word broomstick was used in the mid-18th century in several contexts to mean ‘something ersatz, or lacking the authority its true equivalent might possess.’ She therefore argues that because the expression broomstick marriage, meaning 'sham marriage', was in circulation, folk etymology led to a belief that people must actually have once signified irregular marriage by jumping over a broom.
There are later examples of the term broomstick marriage being used in Britain, always with a similar implication that the ceremony so performed did not create a legally binding union. This meaning survived into the early nineteenth century: during a case heard in London in 1824 regarding the legal validity of a marriage ceremony consisting of nothing more than the groom placing a ring on the bride's finger before witnesses, a court official commented that the ceremony "amounted to nothing more than a broomstick marriage, which the parties had it in their power to dissolve at will."
A decade later, the Marriage Act 1836, which introduced civil marriage, was contemptuously referred to as the ‘Broomstick Marriage Act’ by those who felt that a marriage outside the Anglican church did not deserve legal recognition. Some also began to use the phrase to refer to non-marital unions: a man interviewed in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor admitted: "I never had a wife, but I have had two or three broomstick matches, though they never turned out happy."
Tinkers were said to have a similar custom of marriage called "jumping the budget", with the bride and groom jumping over a string or other symbolic obstacle.
Charles Dickens' novel, Great Expectations (first published in serial form in the publication All the Year Round from 1 December 1860 to August 1861), contains a reference in chapter 48 to a couple having been married "over the broomstick." The ceremony is not portrayed, but the reference indicates that the readers would have recognized this as referring to an informal, not a legally valid, agreement.
It has often been assumed that, in England, jumping over the broom (or sometimes walking over a broom), always indicated an irregular or non-church union (as in the expressions "Married over the besom", "living over the brush"), but there are examples of the phrase being used in the context of legal weddings, both religious and civil.
Other sources have stepping over a broom as a test of chastity, while putting out a broom was also said to be a sign "that the housewife’s place is vacant" and a way, therefore, of advertising for a wife.
In America the phrase could be used as slang describing the act of getting married legally, rather than as specifying an informal union not recognised by church or state.
In Wales, Romani couples would get married by eloping, when they would "jump the broom," or over a branch of flowering common broom or a besom made of broom. Welsh Kale and English Romanichal Gypsies and Romanichal populations in Scotland practised the ritual into the 1900s.
According to Alan Dundes (1996), the custom originated among Romani people in Wales (Welsh Kale) and England (Romanichal).
C.W. Sullivan III (1997) in a reply to Dundes argued that the custom originated among the Welsh people themselves, known as priodas coes ysgub ("besom wedding"), Sullivan's source is the Welsh folklorist Gwenith Gwynn (a.k.a. W. Rhys Jones), who assumed that the custom had once existed on the basis of conversations with elderly Welsh people during the 1920s, none of whom had ever seen such a practice. One had claimed that: "It must have disappeared before I was born, and I am seventy-three". Gwynn's dating of the custom to the 18th century rested on the assumption that it must have disappeared before these elderly interviewees were born, and on his misreading of the baptism register of the parish of Llansantffraid Glyn Ceiriog.
Local variations of the custom were developed in different parts of England and Wales. Instead of placing the broom on the ground, and jumping together, the broom was placed in an angle by the doorway. The groom jumped first, followed by the bride. In southwest England, in Wales, and in the border areas between Scotland and England, "[while some] couples ... agreed to marry verbally, without exchanging legal contracts[,] .... [o]thers jumped over broomsticks placed across their thresholds to officialize their union and create new households", indicating that contractless weddings and jumping the broomstick were different kinds of marriage.
In some African-American communities, marrying couples will end their ceremony by jumping over a broomstick, either together or separately. This practice is well attested for as a marriage ceremony for slaves in the Southern United States in the 1840s and 1850s who were often not permitted to wed legally. Its revival in 20th century African American culture is due to the novel and miniseries Roots (1976, 1977).
Dundes (1996) notes the unusual development of how "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".
There have been occasional speculations to the effect that the custom may have origins in West Africa, but there is no direct evidence for this, although Dundes points to a custom of Ghana where brooms were waved above the heads of newlyweds and their parents. Among southern Africans, who were largely not a part of the Atlantic slave trade, it represented the wife's commitment or willingness to clean the courtyard of the new home she had joined.
Slave-owners were faced with a dilemma regarding committed relationships between slaves. While some family stability might be desirable as helping to keep slaves tractable and pacified, anything approaching a legal marriage was not. Marriage gave a couple rights over each other which conflicted with the slave-owners’ claims. Most marriages between enslaved blacks were not legally recognized during American slavery, as in law marriage was held to be a civil contract, and civil contracts required the consent of free persons. In the absence of any legal recognition, the slave community developed its own methods of distinguishing between committed and casual unions. The ceremonial jumping of the broom served as an open declaration of settling down in a marriage relationship. Jumping the broom was always done before witnesses as a public ceremonial announcement that a couple chose to become as close to married as was then allowed.
Jumping the broom fell out of practice when blacks were free to marry legally. The practice did survive in some communities, however, and made a resurgence after the publication of Alex Haley's Roots Danita Rountree Green describes the African American custom as it stood in the early 1990s in her book Broom Jumping: A Celebration of Love (1992).
American singer-songwriter, Brenda Lee, released the rockabilly song "Let's Jump the Broomstick" on Decca Records in 1959. Via its association with Wales and the popular association of the broom with witches, the custom has also been adopted by some Wiccans.
A film titled Jumping the Broom, directed by Salim Akil, and starring Paula Patton & Laz Alonso was released on 6 May 2011.
In a 2013 episode of Grey's Anatomy, Miranda Bailey and Ben Warren jump over a broom at the conclusion of their wedding ceremony.
In the classic 1977 TV mini-series "Roots", Kunta Kinte/"Toby" (played by John Amos) had a marriage ceremony where he and Belle (played by Madge Sinclair) jumped the broom.