I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.
Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea.
As Italian as Pasta
By the time I visited Venice in 2001, I had completely suppressed this unhappy memory. I saw the house reputed to have been Marco Polo’s, and thought that was pretty cool. I never guessed that this legendary explorer may have been to blame for yet another of my childhood traumas. In North America, most people think of the piñata as a Mexican phenomenon (albeit one that has become ubiquitous among other cultures as well). And so it is, but it took a rather circuitous path to get there—from, of all places, China. Probably.
Although I ran across one claim that the piñata can be traced to rituals performed in parts of Africa, most sources suggest that the history of the piñata as we know it today began in China (at least as far back as the 12th century). A figure in the shape of an animal such as an ox or buffalo was filled with seeds and broken to celebrate the coming of spring. During the Renaissance, a variation on this custom appeared in Italy—though whether Marco Polo was truly responsible for its importation is a matter of some dispute. One way or another, the Italian pignatta came to be a clay pot—often in the shape of a pineapple, not an animal—filled with trinkets rather than seeds. It was ceremonially broken on the first Sunday of Lent, so rather than having a merely seasonal symbolism it came to have religious significance as well.
From Italy the pignatta spread to Spain, where it took on a more ordinary shape, and apparently underwent a linguistic change as well. The term piñata came to be used not for the pot itself (called la olla), but for the game or ritual of breaking it. And the contents tended to be sweets, though the Spanish retained the pignatta’s association with Lent. Eventually, the clay pots started to be covered with colored paper and other decorations, approximating their modern appearance.
Jars of Clay
Spanish missionaries brought the piñata to Mexico as, of all things, an evangelistic tool. Apparently a similar ritual had evolved independently among both the Maya and the Aztecs. In the native Mexican tradition, a clay pot filled with trinkets was set on a high pole and broken in mid-December as part of a ritual honoring the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. The Spanish co-opted this concept as part of their Christmas celebration, assigning Christian meanings to the ritual. The pot came to represent the devil, and striking it was symbolic of overcoming evil. At some point, the standard Mexican piñata design came to be a sphere with seven conical points—a shape that, depending on who you ask, was meant to represent the Star of Bethlehem (as appropriate to the Christmas story) or the seven deadly sins (as appropriate to the defeat of evil).
The tradition of designing piñatas to look like cartoon characters and other distinctly nonreligious forms is a relatively recent occurrence, dating back only to the early 20th century as far as I can tell. The switch from paper-covered clay pots to papier-mâché is even more recent, and may have occurred to satisfy the growing demands of American tourists wanting cheap souvenirs from Mexico. Meanwhile, the religious significance has all but disappeared, and though the piñata is still frequently associated with Christmas in Mexico, it’s equally common at birthday parties and other celebrations throughout the year.
Of course, you’ll never see a piñata at my parties, because after much soul-searching, I’ve decided I’m opposed to violence against hollow paper containers. But more importantly, think of all that innocent candy inside. The risk of collateral damage is just too great.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 1, 2004.