A couple jump the broom during their wedding at a pop-up chapel in New York City's Central Park on July 30, 2011 -- the first Saturday that same-sex couples were legally allowed to marry in N.Y.

Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

History of the Jumping Over the Broom Ceremony

There's no definitive answer as to where jumping the broom originated. Some people believe that the ceremony began in the 18th century in West Africa where, among some cultures, handmade brooms were used not only for cleaning but also for removing evil spirits. During a wedding ceremony, the broom was waved over the heads of a couple to ward off these spirits. Sometimes the broom was placed on the ground directly in front of a couple's path as they turned to exit the ceremony, at which point they would jump over it. The person who jumped the highest was good-naturedly designated as the household's decision maker [source: Aaregistry.com].

Jumping the broom was used as a marriage ceremony in the 18th and 19th century American South among some slave populations. It served as an alternative to courthouse or church weddings, which were prohibited by race-based laws and customs until the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution enforced blacks' rights as citizens [source: Washington, Sambol-Tosco]. Like many African traditions, jumping the broom survived but became less common in the decades immediately after emancipation, perhaps because the ceremony was too closely associated with slavery at the time.

People of African descent weren't the only ones who jumped the broom during that period in history. The wedding custom was a common practice in Welsh, Scottish and Roma cultures [source: BBC]. In pre-Christian Wales, couples who wished to commit to each other followed pagan tradition: A broom was placed across a home's doorway and, like jumping a hurdle, the groom leapt over it, and then the bride followed. If neither one of them made the broom fall -- or took a face-plant on the floor -- the marriage was meant to be. If the broom took a tumble, so did hopes for their marriage: The wedding would be cancelled altogether [source: Jones]. The ceremony was widespread enough (especially among couples who didn't want or weren't given the legal right to have a court- or church-sanctioned wedding) that Charles Dickens mentioned it casually in "Great Expectations" in 1861; he wrote that a couple was married "over the broomstick."

Today, jumping the broom is still an important wedding tradition for many -- whether they wish to pay homage to their ancestors, signify a fresh start or add a personal twist to their special day.