What’s it going to be this year? A pirate, astronaut or perhaps a member of the IDF? Queen Esther or a Disney princess? Are you going to Primark for an animal-themed onesie, or getting out the sewing machine and whipping up a three-dimensional hamantaschen with embroidered rainbow sprinkles?
Yes, Purim is nearly upon us, and this year it coincides with World Book Day, when schools require parents to create fancy dress costumes for their kids. These events are wonderful, spectacular fun for imaginative kids and nimble-fingered parents — the sort of parent who doesn’t panic and cry when their child declares that they want to celebrate the story of Esther by dressing as the Eiffel Tower.
They’re also fun if you’ve got the money and time to visit the costume shop nice and early to nab the outfit that means your son gets to be Black Panther.
But many families dread dressing-up days. First you have to get the day right — I know parents scarred for life by either forgetting about it altogether, until you reach the school gate and see the head teacher transformed into Professor Dumbledore, or — far worse — turning up to school with a miniature Miss Piggy one week before the chag.
Then you have to manage expectations cost-wise. One of my kids arranged with friends that they would all dress as a Mexican band — a great idea until we found out the eye-watering combined cost of sombrero, frilly shirt and maracas.
Some kids find the whole idea of dressing up humiliating and mortifying. My son always hated costume days, from the age of five, when I created a fabulous red spider outfit out of stuffed tights for the kindergarten ‘mini-beast day’. Shortly after entering the school building, he decided that the bobbing antennae and bouncing legs (so cleverly fashioned by his adoring mother) destroyed his dignity.
He spent the day looking sad in a corner, refusing to join the uninhibited throng of beetles, bees and butterflies. “Let him get changed into his PE things,” said the kind teacher. “No — I worked hard on that costume,” I replied through gritted teeth.
By seven, his first year in a Jewish school, I could only coax him to school on Purim by letting him wear his Manchester United goalie top. Unfortunately, unknown to me, the headteacher had declared in assembly a few weeks before that if the kids turned up in football kit they’d be sent home, a joke which the humourless form teacher took entirely seriously. A tense phone call meant I had to rush back to school to argue with her. I refused to take him home, and my small Edwin van de Sar nearly dissolved into tears. It was not a great start, and Purim became his least-favourite day of the Jewish year until we bought him a khaki shirt and let him assume a military identity.
As for World Book Day, there’s an increasing feeling among children’s authors that the whole thing has got out of hand. It ought to be about instilling a love of reading, a celebration of books, but instead parents are rushing to Asda to fill classrooms with identical Oompa Loompas.
There are easy fixes if you’re short on ideas. Jeans and a stripy top make a pirate and most of Where’s Wally?; a red cape is all you need for Red Riding Hood; and an all-purpose black velvet magician’s cape works for Hogwarts, Halloween and even Haman. Queen Esther just needs a tiara and posh frock, Mordechai can be conjured up with a bathrobe and a turban, and if you’re absolutely desperate, you can create a wonderful spider from a black T shirt and leggings and a pair of opaque tights stuffed with newspaper. Just don’t blame me if your child never wants to dress up again.