“It’s like the Jewish Halloween”
This is the easiest way to explain Purim to the unaffiliated co-worker. However, despite their seemingly identical customs, a closer look reveals just how different these two holidays really are.
While Halloween costumes are traditionally dark, morbid, and “spooky,” Purim costumes are bright, festive, and joyful. On a deeper level, the origins of these two masquerades could not be more divergent. According to historians, pagans commonly dressed up during the Celtic festival of Samhain on October 31 in order to blend in with the spirits and ghosts that they believed were roaming around at that time (history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween). In a sense, then, Halloween costumes began as a way for people to hide from perceived forces of power.
In stark contrast, Purim costumes are a reminder of how sometimes Hashem appears to be hiding from us (B’nei Yisaschar, Adar 9:1). Chazal say that everything Hashem did during Megillas Esther was “hidden,” creating the illusion that we were in danger of annihilation (Maseches Megillah 12a). Even the very name of the Purim story, Esther, is a reference to hester panim, how Hashem seemed to “mask” His face and allow near-tragedy to befall us (Chulin 139b). Indeed, Hashem’s name is noticeably absent from the Megillah. However, despite the disguise, the hand of Hashem was clearly at work behind the scenes, delivering our salvation. On Purim, we celebrate the recognition of Hashem even when we cannot see His face. Our costumes are a colorful reminder that there is always someone behind the mask. Far from dressing up to try to hide from our Source of power like the pagans did, we wear masks on Purim as a reminder to try to uncover Hashem’s presence in our daily lives.
Now let’s move on to the real treat: the mounds of goodies amassed both in October and in Adar. But here, too, these two sweet traditions come from diametrically opposed perspectives. “Trick-or-treating” is an activity centered on taking, while Mishloach Manos is all about giving. Halloweeners prepare for their holiday by buying empty buckets and drawing up the route where they can collect the most loot; Yidden prepare for Purim by creating beautiful pekelach and making a list of all the people to whom they will distribute the gifts. (Would a trick-or-treater leave chocolates by the door if no one was home?!) Receiving mishloach manos is a wonderful side benefit, but the true mitzvah of the day is to give to others, spread joy, and enhance friendships (Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, Manos HaLevi to Esther 9:19).
It’s like the Jewish Halloween – l’havdil!