This weekend, observant Jews will dress up in costumes (à la Halloween) and party about as hard as they can, all in the name of Purim, the holiday that has become the Jewish equivalent of a rager. It really is a longstanding custom to let loose on Purim, but the story behind its raucous celebrations is definitely a sobering — and significant — one.
Purim's origins are found in the Book of Esther in the Tanakh, or the Old Testament, which tells the story of how one woman (Esther) saved the Jewish people of Persia from certain death.
Esther, a Jewish woman, became queen of Persia shortly after arriving in the king's harem. She kept her religious identity a secret from the king at first, but when she heard that the king's advisor, Haman, was plotting to exterminate the Jewish people, she could not remain silent.
Esther planned to appear before the king and plea for her people's lives, but showing up to speak to the king without being summoned was punishable by death. To prepare, Esther fasted for three days. When she finally visited the king, he heard her out, stopped the planned genocide, and granted Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies. If that tale isn't worthy of a massive party, what is? This whole story was written down in the Book of Esther, otherwise knows as the Megillah of Esther.
Nowadays, observant Jews fast from sunrise to sunset the day before Purim to echo Esther's own fast. Purim proper is when congregants take part in a public Megillah reading (or two) and the partying starts. In celebration of the Jews' salvation in Persia, people drink, eat triangular cookies known as hamantaschen (which are meant to mimic the three-pronged hat Haman wore), and generally make a ton of joyful noise. During the Megillah reading, whenever Haman's name is said, congregants interrupt the reader with boos, hisses, and ratchet-like noisemakers called graggers. Sometimes, congregants even put on comical renditions of the Purim story in performances known as "purim spiels" ("spiel" can mean "game" or "play" in Yiddish).
Considering the holiday's overall vibe, it makes sense that it's often compared to Mardi Gras and Halloween, but its founding story makes it totally unique to Judaism. Esther's bravery continues to symbolize the enduring spirit of the Jewish community, even when faced with truly life-and-death situations. And toasting to the preservation of your culture and your people with a drink or two (or more) seems like a fantastic way to celebrate.