Across the world, Jewish people are marking the annual holiday of Purim on 9-12th March, by dressing up in colourful costumes, holding big parties and baking special food. Dubbed a kind of Jewish Mardis Gras – due to its carnival atmosphere – Jews are also encouraged to drink lots of wine over the period.
It's both a celebration and remembrance of Jewish survival in the ancient world. The story of Purim is told in the Book of Esther, an old biblical text, and details a plot by the prime minister of Persia to carry out genocide on the Jews under his authority.
Purim is celebrated on the 14th and 15th of Adar, which is the twelfth month in the Jewish calendar which often falls in March. Jews commonly greet each other by saying "Chag Purim Sameach", which is Yiddish for Happy Purim. They also send each other "mishloach manot" – baskets of food and drinks.
The Scroll of Esther is heard twice, known as the Purim Spiel, once on Purim eve and again on Purim day. The V'al Hanissim prayer, which describes the Purim miracle, is recited during morning, afternoon and evening prayers. When Haman is mentioned, Jews are encouraged to boo, hiss and stamp their feet in disapproval. Jewish children often dress up as characters from the Purim story.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the gripping story centres around a young Jewish woman called Esther, known for her beauty, who lived in Persia. She was raised by her cousin Mordecai, who treated her like a daughter. She was taken to become part of the harem of the King of Persia, Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes. He loved her more than the other women in his harem, and made her his queen but did not know that she was a Jew, a fact also hidden from him by Mordecai.
Haman, the king's arrogant and most senior adviser, hated Mordecai because he would not bow down to him. In spite, Haman plotted to wipe out the Jews. He told the king: "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them."
The king gave Haman the power do what he wanted with the Jews, which was to destroy them. But Mordecai told Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jews.
"This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the king's presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned," says the Jewish Virtual Library. "Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went into the king. He welcomed her. Later, she told him of Haman's plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai."
Among the food prepared especially for Purim is hamantaschen, which means Haman's pockets, a type of sweet cookie filled with nut butter. A large challah – braided bread – is also cooked to remind Jews of the hangman's rope that awaited Haman.
Bean dishes are also common, such as salty boiled beans or chickpeas boiled and seasoned with salt and pepper. "This is meant to remind us that Esther would not eat anything at the court of King Ahashuerus that was not kosher, so she mainly ate peas and beans," says the My Jewish Learning website.
"Among Sephardic Jews, it is a custom to wrap pastry dough around a decorated hard-boiled egg to create the shape of a Purim character or an animal. After baking, these artistic creations (Folares) are displayed with pride and eaten with delight."
Jews are also encouraged to give to charity during Purim, particularly to the poor. And it is also traditional for Jews to get so drunk that they cannot tell the difference between being cursed by Haman or blessed by Mordecai.