A feathery mask,
a noisemaker and a bottle of wine are in order if you want to celebrate a
couple of the more unbridled March holidays in the proper spirit. The Mardi
Gras bashes leading up to the March 5 beginning of the Christian Lent, followed
by the Jewish Festival of Purim on March 19, offer back-to-back reasons to
stage a rousing masquerade ball.
So grab a costume
and consider: What are you hiding? In the story at the heart of Purim, Esther,
Queen of Persia, was hiding her Jewish identity in a land where Jews had
first arrived as slaves and then remained as an underclass. Her husband,
King Ahasuerus, had done away with his first wife and held a beauty contest
to select Esther as a replacement. Her outer beauty was all that mattered
But when Esthers
Uncle Mordechai warned her that the kings top advisor had hatched a
plan to massacre the Jews of Persia and steal their property, Esther knew
she must find her inner strength. She fasted and prayed, and then she invited
her husband, King Ahasuerus, and his evil advisor, Haman, to a lavish supper.
The men feasted and imbibed and had a fine time, night after night for three
days, at the special dinners Esther gave in their honor. The king grew ever
more pleased and more effusive in his promises to grant Esther any wish she
Finally, she revealed
her Jewish roots and Hamans brutal plans for her people. The king signed
an order allowing the Jews to defend themselves and their property, and Haman
suffered the fate he had conspired to impose on others. He lived just long
enough to see
Esthers Jewish uncle, Mordechai,
awarded the honors Haman had wanted for his own.
story is told at Purim parties, and many glasses of wine are hoisted in her
honor. In fact, in Jewish tradition, on Purim it is officially OK to drink
until you dont know the difference between the statements Blessed
be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman. Purim celebrations are
meant to be rowdy, with everyone encouraged to hiss and boo and rattle
noisemakers at every mention of the villain. Disguises, masks and costumes
are another part of the fun in honor of the Persian beauty who turned out
to be a Jewish heroine.
The appeal of dressing
up and partying with abandon carries through to the more recently dreamt-up
masquerade known as Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is the blow-out Fat
Tuesday bash that heralds the arrival of the Christian season of Lent.
While Lent itself is a solemn time of prayer, fasting and sacrifice, the
seasons purpose is to prepare worshippers for the definitive joy of
the Christian faith - symbolized in the Easter resurrection. And so ultimately,
at the heart of Mardi Gras is the same theme found in Esthers story
- a surprise salvation of believers, against all odds, from the snares of
the agents of death.
Mardi Gras originated
in France, where it traditionally caps off the three-day Carnival festival,
a period for indulging in the joys of life before buckling down to the spiritual
discipline of Lent. Transplanted to the American city of New Orleans, Louisiana,
by French colonists, Carnival has grown into a two-week series of parties
in New Orleans. And Mardi Gras itself, March 4 this year, has become an even
more riotous day of uninhibited merriment. Parades, dressing in elaborate
costumes, dancing and drinking are the primary indulgences of the huge street
parties where revelry is celebrated for its own sake.
Tuesday ends at midnight, sobriety descends in the form of Ash Wednesday,
the first day of Lent in western churches, when Catholics go to church to
be marked with a cross of ash upon the forehead - to be reminded of mortality
and the impermanence of physical form. Eastern Orthodox Lent begins the following
Monday. In the 40-day season, Christians are encouraged to sacrifice, to
fast and to pray, in preparation to receive the risen Lord at
the celebration of Christs resurrection at Easter.
The March masquerades
of Mardi Gras and Purim share an exuberance, a delight with disguise, and
an attitude of joyful abandonment of worry, which together suggest that every
now and then it is refreshing and renewing for peoples sensible seriousness
to take a back seat to high spirits and a rowdy good time.
In a way, both
celebrations are symbolic of the presence of God coming into a situation
through astounding and sudden shifts of fortune, lifting us from the terror
of impending doom to the heights of happiness through miraculous rescue.
In Lent and Easter, Christians see the activity of Christ rescuing believers
from mortality just as surely as Queen Esthers actions saved her people
from the deadly plot of Haman - despite how dire both situations
Rabbis like to
point out at Purim that God is never mentioned in the scriptural story of
Esther. They say the power of God is present in the story, but hidden, as
if behind a mask. As we know, things are not always as they seem. The masquerades
of March can remind us just how surprising life can be
and that impending
doom can be reversed
and that sometimes, being giddy with happiness
is the perfect reaction.
For a detailed
listing of this months world holidays, see
the March Interactive Calendar