I wonder sometimes how it came to pass that so many cultures have celebrations / carnivals / festivals around this time of year. Christians have Mardi Gras, the "Fat Tuesday" carnival which precedes the Lenten season; Hindus have Holi, the festival of colors celebrated at the full moon nearest to the spring equinox; Jews have Purim, our festival of costumes and disguises and topsy-turviness, also at full moon, also near the spring equinox. Maybe there's something about deep winter which awakens a cross-cultural human yearning for bright colors, merriment, and change.
Giant painted wooden gragger, showing a scene from the Megillah of Esther.
The shortest days of the year are well behind us. (And I am grateful for that. I thrive on longer light.) But just as summer's strongest heat comes well after the longest day of the year, winter's deepest cold comes well after the shortest day. The thermometer in my car this morning registered -5 as I drove our son to preschool. He is fascinated by the fact of negative numbers, and we talk about them often. I'm not sure I knew what negative numbers were when I was his age. Then again, I didn't grow up in a place where negative numbers routinely register on the thermometer as winter unfolds.
By mid-morning the mercury had risen some 25 degrees, and by comparison the air feels -- well, balmy would be an overstatement, but certainly more comfortable! The sun on the snow is so bright that it creates the illusion of warmth; I opened the windows in my car to let in some crisp fresh air. And today is a bright, cloudless, blue-sky day. Sunshine sparkles on the dry dunes of snow. But even with the sun, this is a time of year when winter seems to be lingering. February may be the shortest month on the Gregorian calendar, but experientially, it can drag longer than any of the others.
Intellectually I know that winter will end. But the deep freeze feels as though it couldn't possibly budge. Like one of the doors of our house which keeps freezing shut -- it feels as though winter has frozen into place and will never melt. This is exactly when I need Purim most: the raucous cry of the graggers drowning out the name of wicked Haman, the over-the-top soap opera qualities of the Megillah of Esther, the costumes, the nip of celebratory schnapps. Purim comes to remind us that things aren't always what they seem and that God -- while sometimes hidden -- is always present.
One of Purim's themes is change. The wicked vizier winds up hoisted by his own petard; the hidden heroine shows her true colors; the Jews who were going to be victims of a massacre emerge victorious. (Okay, actually the violence at the end of the story is problematic for me, but that's another post.) If those things can change, surely something as simple as the season will change too, in the fullness of time. One of the names by which we know God is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am becoming Who I am becoming." God is always-becoming, never-standing-still. We find God in the simple fact of change.
It's easy to slide into late-winter doldrums. And for those of us who live in snowy climes like this one, this is a time of year when the eye craves color. Everything around us is white and grey and brown, snow and slush and dirt. My bright purple coat and red hat feel necessary, as though their bright colors were actually nourishing. (They may not nourish my body, but surely they nourish my soul.) This is exactly when we need something to shake us up and remind us that there's more to life than slush and road salt. Enter these late-winter festivals, the first early harbingers of the coming spring.
In case you were wondering: Mardi Gras was yesterday; Purim will be two weeks from tonight; Holi will be two weeks from Friday.