by Teresa Narey
The holiday of Purim is arguably the most joyous day of the Jewish year. Purim marks the time that Queen Esther helped save the Jewish people from being harmed by Haman, a confidant to King Achashverosh, who did not agree with the customs of Jewish people. (You can read a detailed account of the story here.) If you are approaching Purim from a Christian lens, it is helpful to know that King Achashverosh is referred to as King Xerxes in the book of Esther in the New International Version of the Bible (it will also explain variations in the spellings of certain names).
The Purim story involves violence and death, but Jewish families and preschools often modify this story to help children understand how one person can make a difference. When Queen Esther, a Jewish woman, learned of Haman’s plan, she spoke up and saved her people. Her courage is commemorated each year in Jewish communities, where people host parties, wear costumes, give gifts to family and friends, read the megillah (the story of Queen Esther), and offer tzedakah, or charity, to those in need. This year, Purim begins at sundown on March 20 and continues through March 21.
Note: We recommend this pronunciation guide to learn how to pronounce Hebrew and Yiddish terms.
Read Purim books and look for Purim symbols. Visit PJ Library, an organization that curates books for children about Judaism, for book recommendations. Books, such as It’s Purim Time! by Latifa Berry Kropf and Sammy Spider’s First Purim by Sylvia A. Rouss, introduce children to Purim symbols and offer easy-to-understand explanations for Purim traditions. After you read a few books, talk with children about Purim symbols. Things like hamantaschen (triangle-shaped cookies) and graggers (noisemakers) will be reoccurring elements. Some believe that the triangle shape of hamantaschen represent a three-cornered hat worn by Haman. The cookies are filled with poppy seeds or fruit jam, and this hidden sweetness is often associated with God’s hidden powers. Graggers, on the other hand, are used to “boo” Haman’s destructive behavior and are waved when Haman’s name is spoken. Consider making graggers and inviting children to wave them every time they hear Haman’s name in a Purim story. Talk with children about positive and negative behaviors. Play a game where you describe positive and negative behaviors and ask children to shake their graggers when they think a behavior is negative.
Set up a Purim story dramatic play area. The Purim story is no different than many stories written for young children about speaking up and the forces of good overcoming evil. Set out queen and king costumes and castle props in your dramatic play area and invite children to reenact the Purim story. Use these simple instructions to make a triangle-shaped hat. Children can take turns pretending to be Esther, Achashverosh, and Haman. As you read Purim stories, you will become familiar with Mordechai, Esther’s uncle and friend to Achashverosh, and you can include a part for him as well. Children may also enjoy simply pretending to be queens and kings and other residents of the castle.
Host a Purim Parade. Costumes play an important part in Purim. It is customary for people to dress up in costumes to attend synagogue and hear the reading of the megillah. Synagogues will also host masquerade parties. The idea of dressing in costume or masquerading is tied to God’s hidden hand in saving the Jewish people from Haman’s plan. Invite children to wear costumes to school on Purim. Plan to have them parade around the building or in a large space in your setting. Encourage parents to attend and participate in the festivities.
Bake hamantaschen. No Purim celebration is complete without hamantaschen. Children can help you prepare this easy recipe. As you combine the ingredients, talk with children about how the cookie has a triangle shape. Can they point out any triangle-shaped items in your setting? After you have cut circles from the dough, show children how to fill, fold, and pinch the dough to create triangles. Serve the hamantaschen as a special snack, or make several batches and offer them to families who attend your Purim Parade. When offering food, remember to seek parent/guardian permission and keep allergies in mind. Offer smaller bites or purees to infants and toddlers.
Make mishloach manot and give tzedakah. Mishloach manot (mish-LOW-ach MAN-ot) are gift baskets that Jewish people send to one another on Purim. The act of giving gifts is dictated in the megillah and seen as a way of maintaining harmony within the community. Similarly, giving tzedakah is a way of providing for those less fortunate on Purim. Help children understand the purpose of mishloach manot and tzedakah by inviting them to make cards or beaded bracelets for friends and family members. Or, you can send home snack bags of hamantaschen or a simple trail mix that you make with the children. Choose a charity, such as a food bank or homeless shelter, and invite families to bring in canned goods or clothes and books to donate. Talk with children and families about the importance of giving. Remind everyone that like Queen Esther, one person can make a difference!
As always, if there are families in your setting who celebrate Purim, invite them to talk with the children about their traditions. Approaching the holiday with a personal lens will help the children make sense of, and add meaning to, the celebration.
- The Mystery Bear by Leone Adelson
- Is It Purim Yet? by Chris Barash
- The Better-Than-Best Purim by Naomi Howland
- Purim Masquerade by Samara Q. Klein
- It’s Purim Time! by Latifa Berry Kropf
- Sammy Spider’s First Purim by Sylvia A. Rouss
- Beni’s Family Treasury by Jane Breskin Zalben
- When It’s Purim by Edie Stoltz Zolkower
- PJ Library Playlist (available on Spotify)