Even if you're not Jewish, chances are you're familiar with some of the major holidays. There's the dynamic duo of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah — aka the High Holy Days — which skew on the serious side, and Hanukkah has become a big deal for even the non-observant (because: Christmas). But my favorite calendar day of the year is one you might not have heard of.
Sometimes referred to as the Jewish Mardi Gras or the Jewish Halloween, Purim has plenty to love: a bona fide Jewish queen, costume play, a whole lot of baked treats, and also booze — lots and lots of booze. In fact, drinking copious amounts is one of the basic tenets of the holiday ... but more on that later.
First, some backstory. A long time ago (circa 366 BC) in a kingdom far, far away (ancient Persia), King Xerxes I tired of his first wife, Vashti. After a beauty pageant worthy of The Bachelor, Xerxes chose a beautiful Jewish girl named Esther to be his new bride. Meanwhile, Haman, the villain of the story, hatched a plan to kill all the Jews in the entire kingdom. But bravely defying ancient traditions and using some crafty back-channeling, Queen Esther was able to turn the tables, send her evil nemesis to the gallows, and save the day.
Thousands of years later, Purim commemorates Esther's triumph and is arguably the most fun Jewish holiday of all time. Here's why:
1. Girl power.
Esther was pretty badass. Think Duchess Kate with a side order of Maggie from The Walking Dead and you'll have a pretty good idea of why this ancient queen continues to be revered by strong women of many faiths.
2. You get to play dress up.
Masks and costumes are a big part of the holiday for kids (often disguised as Esther or her uncle Mordecai) and frequently for adults as well. The custom of dressing up comes from the fact that Queen Ester disguised her true (Jewish) identity from her husband until Haman's plans forced her to out herself.
3. There are treats.
When people ask me to explain Purim, I tell them it's very similar to Halloween, where kids get dressed up and knock on doors asking for treats. But on Purim, it's more about the giving than the taking. Parents take their children to the homes of friends and family and give out baskets of themed baked goods and other delights in a tradition known as mishloach manot. My theme this year is Haman Ramen, but the holiday's signature noshes are the hamentaschen.
These triangle-shaped cookies filled with everything from fruit preserves to poppyseed butter to Nutella are said to resemble the tri-corner hat worn by the holiday's villain-in-chief. (Either that or the purse he wore to collect taxes from the downtrodden).
4. And more treats.
The food doesn't stop at the hamentaschen orgy — there's a giant feast for family and friends. Some families of Eastern European descent (like my own Hungarian/Romanian clan) make stuffed cabbage as part of the meal. Other traditional foods include kreplach, small (sometimes triangular) dough pouches filled with stuffed meat or potatoes, similar to wontons or tortellini, and served in chicken soup. Russian Jews bake kulich, an intricately braided sweet challah bread variation, while Moroccan Jews sometimes prepare their own variation called Boyoja Ungola Di Purim, with almonds and whole hard-boiled eggs.
5. Drinking is a mitzvah.
The Jewish people aren't particularly known to be oenophiles or spirits connoisseurs (I blame Manischewitz), but there's actually a built-in drinking clause on Purim that urges people to drink with gusto. Sometimes you just have to let loose.
(Image credits: Kelli Foster)