For many of us, the holiday of Purim is the second coming of Halloween. Commemorating the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from a genocidal plot, we observe with great merriment, by listening to the megillah, twirling noisy groggers, eating and drinking all while wearing… outlandish costumes. Have you ever stopped to wonder why? Well, believe it or not, the origins of our Purim costume tradition lie not in the pages of the Talmud, but likely in the Catholic tradition of Lent.
The earliest mention of the Purim costume is in a 14th century poem written by a Jew living in Rome. Italy’s Catholics had a tradition of holding a “Carnevale” period in the days before the start of the penitential season of Lent. Carnevale was a days-long festival of often-raucous street parades and masquerade balls. (Their tradition was itself likely based in the ancient Roman party-hearty celebrations of Saturnalia and Lupercalia, honoring the gods of sowing, plenty and fertility.) The festival of Carnevale culminated in Fat Tuesday, marked with overindulgent eating and drinking, and wild antics — a tradition that continues in Mardi Gras celebrations around the world.
Mardi Gras and Purim often fall close together on the calendar year, and while the Jewish community of Rome held their own banquets, the festive spirit of their neighbors’ customs was infectious. Soon, Purim celebrations across Italy became masquerade-style affairs, a custom that spread to Jewish communities across the world. Today, putting on a fabulous Purim costume is a time-honored tradition on par with eating as many hamantaschen as possible!
That the roots of a beloved Jewish custom trace back to a Catholic ritual only goes to show how interconnected we all are. Our shared roots remind us of the wonderful ways in which communities influence each other through time — and that we all like to party down once in a while. Chag Sameach!