Today's talk was about Purim, which is a celebration of the Jews' victory over the evil Haman. Except for it may not have ever happened... The story goes that the King of Persia, needed a wife, so naturally, he held a beauty contest. He found a very beautiful woman named Esther, who just happened to be Jewish. She didn't tell her husband that she was Jewish, on the advise of Mordecai, as there was a lot of persecution of the Jews going on in Persia at the time. Eventually, Haman asks the King to order that all Jews should be killed. The King goes along with this, and Esther and Mordecai have a problem with that idea. So Mordecai talks to Esther, and convinces her that she's in a position to save the Jewish people, as long as she risks her life by revealing her true identity to her husband. She does this, and the King gives a very illogical answer: that he cannot reverse his original decree; he can only order that the Jews have the right to defend themselves. Esther and the king also host a dinner and invite Haman. They get him drunk, and then they kill him, as well as all of his sons. After that, the army goes out after the Jews, and they fight back, and there's a bloodbath, with thousands of Persians dying left and right.
The Jews survived, so now we eat and drink to celebrate. And since Haman was brought down with a plan devised by a woman, we mock him roundly. Every year on Purim, the book of Esther is read to the congregation. Every time Haman is mentioned, the crowd is supposed to blot out his name by booing, stomping, or using noisemakers. My Rabbi likes to have people cheer when Esther's name comes up.
Another Purim tradition is that everybody dresses up in costumes. Some congregations only dress up the children. Others restrict the costume choices to characters from the story. Our Rabbi likes to have everybody dress up, and they should wear whatever they want. He said that he's gone as a Renaissance figure, a Star Wars character...lots of things. Some Jewish families also use Purim as an alternative to Halloween.
A vital part of the Purim celebration is eating and especially drinking. Lots of drinking. It is said that we should drink until we can't tell the difference between "arur Haman" and "baruch Mordecai", which mean "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordecai", respectively. That's pretty drunk. It's a day of merrymaking and mockery, and it's kind of like a Jewish Mardi Gras...back in the day when Mardi Gras wasn't about pure debauchery.
Purim is also the only Jewish holiday which prescribes gift-giving. Traditionally, food-gifts are given to friends and family, and money and food is given to charity. It's a mitzvah to give those gifts.