I’ve written about and performed the well-known and beloved African-American wedding ritual of ‘jumping the broom.’ Just to recap, it comes from the time when slaves, who were not allowed to marry, created their own rituals. It is a debate among scholars as to whether the custom was brought from Africa or created here, but either way, it is a beautiful and meaningful way to mark crossing this important milestone in life. Sweeping out the old and welcoming in the new, think of how jumping across the broom literally shows crossing a line, and symbolically shows stepping into the couple’s new life together.
But there are many African traditions to explore as well. Some of these lesser-known customs from various countries and regions may be inspiring to you.
A ritual that I can readily relate to comes from the Yoruba tradition. The Yoruba are an ethnic group that live in western African, mostly Nigeria, and total about 44 million people! They have their unique religious beliefs that include the idea of becoming one in spirit with the divine creator, a belief in destiny, and being a well-balanced, positive person. At least this is my simple understanding of it, I’m sure its way more complicated than that. Some Yoruba have become Muslim, Christian or fused other religions into their belief systems.
The ritual I want to present from this tradition is Tasting the Four Elements. In this ceremony sour (lemon), hot (cayenne pepper), sweet (honey) and bitter (vinegar) are used. These elements are tasted to remind the couple of their promise to stick together through all that life brings. To express your promise to your partner in this particular way is interesting and meaningful, and definitely something anyone might incorporate if it appeals to them. Just remember to give a shout-out to the African tradition from which it came. Any time I can use food or beverages as symbols, I’m happy! There are wedding rituals all around the world that involve food or beverages, using bread, Sake, tea ceremonies, wine and more.
Another African-American custom is that of crossing tall wooden sticks. This one also dates to slavery, but just isn’t as well-known as jumping the broom. The stick represents the power and life force within trees and with that the couple is expressing their desire for a strong and grounded start to their life together. I have done many rituals involving nature: tree plantings, jumping over branches and including many references to nature, especially trees and the ‘mighty oak.’ This is another wonderful spin on that symbolism. To make it even better, if possible, choose branches from each of the family homes, or from a place that is meaningful to the couple. Trees, flowers, water, any element from nature woven into a ceremony is perfect for nature loving couples.
I recently learned that “tying the knot“, a well-known and loved ritual from the Irish tradition, is also used in some African tribes. It doesn’t surprise me to see similarities in such disparate places. After all, couples getting married have been striving to show through ritual and symbols what it a wedding means since, well… as long as people have been doing this! For the African spin on tying the knot, use Kente cloth or a string with cowrie shells which symbolize fertility and prosperity. Cowrie shells were an important part of the trade networks of Africa, South Asia and East Asia, and strings of them equaled specific sums of money.
In the 18th century this was the currency of choice along trade routes of West Africa and remained so all the way into the 20th century. Today the shells and strings of shells are more often historic relics or works of art, created to serve as a reminder of culture and heritage.
Kente cloth is deeply intertwined with the history of Ghana. The colorful textile is still loved and worn by Africans and African-Americans, is immediately recognizable and connects to African roots.
There are many other traditions to explore and I intend to keep doing just that. It’s a big world out there and history is long. Let’s hope we all keep learning, growing and respecting each other.
Lois Heckman is a certified Celebrant officiating in the Poconos and beyond. She writes about creating meaningful weddings, focusing on ceremony, ritual, and diverse traditions. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and website: LoisHeckman.com.