Many people in 19th-century Suffolk, Sussex, and Wiltshire thought that during the month of *May the broom meant bad luck, even death; one must not bring its flowers into the house, nor *sweep the floor with broom twigs:
   If you sweep the house with broom in May, You'll sweep the head of that house away,
   Bring broom into the house in May,
   It will sure sweep one of the family away.
   The taboo applied, in modified form, to the household broom as well as the plant; it was (and is) thought very unlucky to buy a broom or brush during May, and the rhyme became:
   Buy a brush in May, Sweep a friend away.
   In medieval and later art, a broom is often the typical attribute of a woman, especially a housewife, in humorous contexts; a misericord in Bristol Cathedral shows a man and his wife tilting, pitchfork against broom. Hence it could be used as social comment:
   When local opinion decides that a wife has been absent from home longer than justifiable, a broom, decorated with a ribbon, will be hung over the doorway, or stuck in a chimney or . . . window, as an advertisement for a housekeeper. When the man himself puts out the broom, it is understood that he invites his friends to carouse with him during his wife's absence, the broom in this case being equivalent to the bush (the old sign of an inn) . . . (Wright, 1928: 25).
   See also *broomstick, *sweeping.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 45-6; Vickery, 1995: 51.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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