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Jumping the broom is a phrase and custom relating to a wedding ceremony where the couple jumps over a broom. The custom is historically associated with the Romani people of the United Kingdom, especially those in Wales, but it is now more 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 1836 Marriage Act, 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."
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 broom or a besom made of broom. Welsh Kale and English Romanichal Gypsies and Romanichal populations in Scotland practised the ritual into the 1900s. The Welsh people themselves practiced a centuries-old custom, priodas coes ysgub ("broom-stick wedding"), alluded to in Dundes' work. 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.
C.W. Sullivan III (1997) in a reply to Dundes argued that the custom originated among the Welsh people themselves, since the custom was known in Wales prior to the 18th century when he believed Gypsies arrived there.[clarification needed] Historical records, however, show that Gypsies actually arrived in Wales earlier, in 1579. A more serious problem with Sullivan’s claim is the complete lack of evidence that the custom even existed in Wales in the 18th century. His source, the Welsh folklorist Gwenith Gwynn (a.k.a. W. Rhys Jones), 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". Others had heard of the practice, but all were unclear on the details, their evidence being peppered with phrases such as "it must have" and "I should think". 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 Llansanffraid Glyn Ceiriog.
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 "mock marriage" ceremony for slaves in the Southern United States in the 1840s and 1850s. 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". While it has sometimes been speculated that the custom may have origins in West Africa, there is no evidence for this. An arguable candidate for a geographic origin of the custom in Africa might be 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. In spite of this, Jones (2003) asserts that "jumping over the broom was definitely a feature in both European and African wedding ceremonies"[clarification needed]
In the American south, the custom determined who ran the household: whoever jumped highest over the broom was the decision maker of the household. Or, alternatively, whoever landed on the ground first after jumping the broom was predicted to be the decision maker in the marriage.
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 also fell out of practice due to the stigma it carried, and in some cases still carries, among black Americans wishing to forget the horrors of slavery. 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 contemporary form of the African American custom in her book Broom Jumping: A Celebration of Love (1992).