This Halloween, you can expect to see plenty of students roaming the streets dressed in costume, celebrating the famous “trick or treating” festival. But for many Jewish students on campus, Halloween is not the only time to dress up in character. Judaism celebrates the story of the Book of Esther with the Purim festival, a time for Jews to dress as their favorite characters and celebrate the savior of the Jews from Haman, the evil minister who in the Book of Esther tried to eliminate the Jews. However, by many accounts, the comparisons stop with the costumes. The traditions of Halloween and Purim are distinct from each other.
What we now know as the familiar, secular festival of Halloween has its roots in Christianity. An article on Franciscan Media by Susan Hines-Brigger explains that Halloween is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, from which Pope Gregory IV would later draw some traditions. In the year 835, Gregory IV designated Nov.1 as All Saints’ Day; the evening came to be known as All Hallows’ Eve, and later, Halloween. For many casual observers, the history of Halloween is unknown. Although our modern consumer society has led Halloween to shed many of its ancient traditions, it began as a Celtic celebration which later evolved into a Catholic holiday.
For the Purim festival, however, religious tradition is more than just history, it is the most important part of the celebration. Every year at Purim, Jews gather together for the annual recitation of the megillah, the Book of Esther traditionally written in Hebrew on a scroll. Every time the name of Haman is mentioned, listeners shake their groggers and stomp their feet. Kids and adults alike can dress as their favorite Purim heroes like Mordechai, Queen Esther, and the Persian King Ahasuerus, but also dress up in a wide variety of other costumes. After hearing the traditions and stories of the megillah, it’s on to the carnival for many Jews who observe Purim. Synagogues often sponsor a Purim carnival for their congregants, providing Purim-themed games, music and food.
Purim is a big deal for sophomore mechanical engineering major Yonit Ollech and her family. She doesn’t celebrate Halloween, so Purim is unique in its own traditions. One of those traditions, she says, is holding a big Purim seudah with cousins, uncles and aunts. “It’s a fun time for the whole family to gather in celebration of the Purim story,” she acknowledges. According to Ollech, one family tradition her mom carries on is the giving of Mishloach Manot, gifts of food or drink that are sent to family, friends and others on Purim day.
Ollech also says she enjoys helping her mom come up with clever themes and foods to go with these festive Purim baskets. For Ollech, dressing up can be fun on Purim. But for her, it’s not the most important part of Purim.
“What really matters,” she says, “is the megillah reading, seudah, mishloach manot and just spending time with family and friends.”
This Halloween has been like any other Monday for Ollech. However, she does plan on eating some of the chocolate that her neighbors keep outside of their rooms.
For all its traditions though, Purim doesn’t seem to be so popular with some Jewish students. For freshmen Ross Tanenbaum and Aaron Seldowitz, Halloween is simply more fun. Tanenbaum, a freshman letters and sciences student, said Halloween differs from Purim in its tradition. Unlike Purim, which Tanenbaum claims “has a story behind it,” and a more traditional celebration, the culture of Halloween is not so formal, but rather more of a popular social event. Tanenbaum said, however, that growing up he never celebrated Purim.
Asked of his favorite holiday traditions, he said, “I enjoy trick or treating, dressing up in costume, and carving jack-o-lanterns.” This weekend, Tanenbaum dressed as DJ Khaled, went to Halloween parties, and ate lots of candy.
Aaron Seldowitz, a freshman mechanical engineering major, painted a similar view of the two festivals. Citing the culture of the festivals, Seldowitz repeated Tanenbaum’s position that Purim is based on a story and holds more tradition, ,and agreed that Halloween is more of a social gathering. This popular designation makes Halloween a more appealing holiday for many young people like Seldowitz, who says he’ll be spending the weekend dressing up as a lumberjack and attending Halloween parties.
“Purim is a more religious celebration which promotes a fun environment for kids,” he said. Seldowitz also says that his favorite part of Purim is eating hamantaschen, the jelly or chocolate filled triangular cookies that Purim is famous for.
Purim and Halloween are two holidays with longstanding traditions and histories, but very different perceptions. The Jewish holiday celebrating the liberation of the Persian Jews continues to be rooted in longstanding traditions. On the other hand, Halloween’s popularity has forced the festival to relinquish its religious background for a more secular appeal. For many Jews, this popular appeal seems to make a significant impact over that of Purim.