Purim, which literally means "lots" in Hebrew, is a Jewish holiday commemorating the rescue of Jews living in Persia from certain destruction at the hands of Haman, an evil Persian nobleman. Haman believed that a Jewish leader named Mordechai had not demonstrated enough respect in his court. Incensed by this lack of obedience, Haman and his wife Zeresh conceived a plan to kill Mordechai and all of his fellow Persian Jews. Special lots, or purim, would be thrown to determine the actual day this slaughter would begin.
Unfortunately for Haman, news of the proposed massacre reached the ears of Esther, a Jewess married to the King of Persia. Esther and Mordechai put their lives in jeopardy to expose Haman's plot and rescue the Jews from certain death. Haman himself would later be hung on the same gallows he had built for Mordechai. Details of this Jewish salvation from the evil Haman were recorded in the Book of Esther, also called the Megillah of Esther.
The Jewish holiday of Purim is now celebrated on the 14th day of Adar in the Jewish calendar, which usually coincides with a day in March. Jews first observe the Fast of Esther the day before Purim, then the actual holiday begins with a reading from the Megillah or Book of Esther that evening. A second public reading from the Megillah or Book of Esther occurs on the morning of Purim. Participants in these readings are allowed to stomp, hiss or shake a special rattle whenever Haman's name is mentioned.
The rest of the Purim holiday is spent in various stages of merrymaking and charitable acts. One tradition of Purim involves the creation of a food platter or basket for neighbors and local charities. During Purim, many participants wear colorful costumes and masks while parading through the streets. Another informal tradition during Purim is the satirical reading of scriptures, often performed as part of an irreverent form of musical theater. It is said that the Yiddish theater tradition grew out of such Purim skits and songs.
The Purim holiday ends with a special dinner called the Seudat Purim. Although many Jewish religious leaders encourage some restraint during Purim, participants often partake of copious amounts of wine during the Seudat Purim, and the celebrations may go on well into the night. While not considered a major Jewish holiday, Purim is still viewed as a day of rejoicing and remembrance of Queen Esther and Mordechai's courageous acts against Haman.