According to the Megillah it is a time of “sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor” – mishlo’ach manot ish l’re’ehu umattanot la’evyonim.
Significant lessons are derived from this wording. From mishlo’ach (sending), we learn that the gifts should be delivered by others on your behalf; money gifts in particular are usually given anonymously. This saves embarrassment – the giver does not see the neediness of a poor recipient, and the recipient does not have to be ashamed of his of her poverty.
From the plural manot (portions), and mattanot (gifts), we learn to give at least two gifts.
From ish l’re’ehu (one to another), we learn to give to at least one other person.
From mattanot (gifts), we learn to give charity.
From la’evyonim (to the poor), we learn to give what the other needs.
An interesting comment of the Jewish law codes is, “We are not fussy about whom we give to on Purim; we give to anyone who stretches out his hand”.
The edible gifts which are given – usually two kinds of food and drink – depend on local custom.
There was a practice in North Africa to give sweet cakes with coloured icing depicting figures from the Book of Esther, and the gentile population called the day “the sugar feast”. European communities gave Hamantaschen (“Haman pockets”; known in Hebrew as Oznei Haman, “Haman’s ears”).