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Pomegranate Guild > Hidden Meaning: The Tradition of Masquerading on Purim

By Johanna Norry, Peach State Stitchers

Ask any child what their favorite part about Purim is, and depending on how much they love hamantaschen, they'll probably tell you it's dressing up in masks and costumes. But surely our ancestors didn't dress up like Spiderman or Cinderella. In fact, until the 15th century, they didn't even dress up like Queen Esther or Mordechai. Like many Jewish traditions, which to us seem to be naturally a part of our calendar of celebrations, the practice of masquerading on Purim was borrowed from our surroundings and the customs of the day. It was in the late 1400s that the Jews of Italy, who observed the Italian Catholics' Lenten carnival at around the same time of year, adopted this custom for themselves and began to masquerade as part of their Purim celebration.

Although it was late to the table in terms of Purim traditions, and although we borrowed it from popular culture, it seems to me that masquerading is indeed a natural companion to the other traditions of Purim merrymaking. Pulling pranks, getting drunk, making noise and poking fun at our most sacred institutions, all serve to highlight the absurdity of the Purim story. Amidst the noise and from behind the mask, we can face the frightening message that the fate of the Jewish people appears to rest on the whims of a madman and unseen fortune.

A more mystical explanation of why wearing masks is a natural on Purim can be found in the story itself -- in Megillat Esther. For one thing, Esther, our story's heroine, hides her identity as a Jew only to strategically reveal herself in order to save her family and her people. God's presence is also hidden from the reader. The name of God is never mentioned in the entire book of Esther, a fact that almost kept it out of the canon of the Jewish Bible. But our ability to see the hand of God in history, even when God's presence is hidden from us, turns the story of Purim into a sacred text and the celebration of averted disaster into a raucous holiday full of frivolity.

Editor's Note: The above photo is of the Peach State Stitchers' Purim Mask Workshop.

Originally Posted: February 9, 2004
Last Updated: August 1, 2010

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