The surprising Catholic history behind a peculiar Jewish tradition

 

If Purim is the most joyous of Jewish holidays, it’s also the strangest. If you were to mash up a prayer service with Halloween, vaudeville, Thanksgiving dinner, happy hour, the chaotic energy of Paw Patrol and then added a splash of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’d get something like a Purim celebration.

Have you ever wondered why we do the excessive things we do on Purim, like giving gift baskets heaping with treats; feasting and drinking; making tons of noise with groggers in synagogue while listening to the megillah; putting on silly plays; and, especially, wearing outlandish costumes? Interestingly enough, the origins of our Purim revelry traditions likely share the same roots as those of Mardi Gras: in the Catholic tradition of Lent.

The earliest mention of the Purim costume is a 14th century poem written by a Jew living in Rome. Back then, just before the penitential season of Lent, Italy’s Catholics would hold a days-long festival known as “Carnevale,” marked by raucous street parades and masquerade balls. Carnevale culminated in Fat Tuesday, marked with overindulgent eating, drinking and wild antics — a tradition that continues today 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.

That a beloved Jewish tradition may trace back to a Catholic ritual goes to show how interconnected we are — and that we all like to party down once in a while. Chag sameach!

 

Looking to celebrate with your Kehillah this year? Try these community-wide Purim carnivals for the whole family to enjoy, and don’t forget your costume: 

Kehillah of Old York Road

Sunday, March 8, 2020 | 11:00 a.m. preschool families; 12:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m. general admission

Keneseth Israel, 8339 Old York Road, Elkins Park, PA 19027

Cost: $18 per family. For more information and tickets click here.

 

Kehillah of Lower Merion

Sunday, March 8, 2020 | 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Kaiserman JCC, 45 Haverford Road, Wynnewood, PA

Cost: $12 per child or $36 per family; children under 2 and adults free. For more information and tickets click here.

 

Northeast Jewish Life

Sunday, March 15, 2020 | 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.

KleinLife, 10100 Jamison Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19116

Tickets available at the door. For more information contact northeastpurim@jewishphilly.org.