There are many theories as to how this holiday developed.
Gaster concludes that the story of Esther is not a historical fact and that the reason for associating it with the feast of Purim could have been that the details of the feast were conveniently explained. He points out that the original form of that feast had these components: the selection of a new queen, corresponding to the selection of Esther; the parade of a commoner qua king, corresponding to the parade of Mordecai in the streets of Shushan (Esther 6:11); a fast, corresponding to Esther's fast (4:15-16); the execution of a felon, corresponding to the hanging of Haman (Esther 7:10, 9:25); and the distribution of gifts (Esther 9:22). Furthermore, that festival must have taken place around the time of the vernal equinox, for it is then that Purim occurs.
All of these aforementioned conditions are satisfied if one assumes that the festival of Purim dates back to an earlier pagan new year festival. Indeed, at new year it is customary in many parts of the world to appoint a new ruler in order to symbolize the renewal of communal life. Likewise, the installation of a commoner as temporary ruler between the end of one year and the commencement of another was quite commonplace. The Babylonian new year was also known to feature a type of scapegoat ritual whereby a condemned criminal was led through the streets in a processional. Finally, there indeed was a custom of distributing gifts at the new year, as there is today on Purim.
Some scholars have suggested that the Scroll of Esther was written long after the Persian period and was a kind of historical novel intended to comment on the situation of the Jews under Hellenistic rule.
In any event, whatever the true history of the festival of Purim, it had long become established by the second century of the Common Era when a whole tractate of the Talmud, called the Megillah, was devoted to the details of the observance.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.