What it's all about
Purim is a joyous holiday that celebrates the rescue of the Jews of Persia from annihilation. Along with reading the biblical Book of Esther (often called the megillah) on Purim, we dress up in costumes, share a festive meal, give gifts to our friends, and money to those in need.
The Story of Purim
It's not clear that the Book of Esther corresponds to any archeological evidence, but the story takes place at a time when many Jews were living in Persia. A young Jewish woman, Esther, fabled for her beauty, is appointed Queen of Persia with the help of her uncle and guardian, Mordechai. But the Jews have enemies, including Haman, the grand vizier, who plots the Jews' destruction. Even though Esther has hidden her Jewish identity, Mordechai pushes her to risk her life by telling the king that she is a Jew. She does this, and denounces Haman's evil plot. At the end of the story, the Jews are able to turn the tables on their enemies. The story is a great example of the beloved Jewish ideal of a small minority triumphing over certain destruction.
Purim is like a big party. On the eve of the holiday, and again the next morning, the story of Esther is read. Instead of normal synagogue attire, you wear costumes, silly hats, or funny masks. While the megillah is being read, you whoop, holler, and use noisemakers to drown out the name of Haman. Another tradition is the Purim shpiel, a Purim play that pokes fun at community leaders and members. Many synagogues also host a Purim carnival, with games and activities for children.
On Purim you eat hamantaschen, triangular cookies with a filling (poppy and jam are popular options). Hamantaschen means Haman's pockets, and various legends connect the triangular pastries with Haman's hat, ears, and pockets. Many people put their hamantaschen in small packages of foods and gifts, which they distribute to friends and to the poor. Finally, a festive meal at home closes the holiday. It is traditional to serve alcohol, as well as a sumptuous feast, at this meal.