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Piñatas: México's Favorite Party Favor

By Shana Hugh, May 2000 Issue of the Pacific Pearl

‘Childrens’ Day on April 30 was yet another occasion in México to break out the piñata. Most commonly used at Christmastime and at children's parties, the piñata tradition accompanies almost every festive occasion in México.

Chinese Piñata

Although the origin of the piñata is uncertain, there are a variety of claims for inspiration to the modern piñata, including those from China, Italy, Spain and México, who all seem to have their own version of the game. In the 12th century, when the Venetian explorer Marco Polo visited China, he apparently brought the "piñata" back to Italy. The Chinese "piñata" was part of an agricultural ceremony performed at the beginning of spring, which was also the beginning of the Chinese New Year. In this ceremony, the figure of a cow, ox or buffalo-- which was covered with colored paper-- was filled with seeds and hung with agricultural tools. The figure was then hit with colored sticks until it broke, spilling the seeds to the ground. When empty, the colored paper from the figure was burned and ashes were collected for good luck.

Italy and the Pignatta

In the 16th century, during the Renaissance in Italy, the Italians played a game where blindfolded players swung a stick at a decorated clay pot. The pot was called a "pignatta" (literally meaning "clay pot") and was filled with trinkets, jewelry or candy. As the game spread through Europe, the piñata began to take on a religious significance. For example, in Spain the custom was adopted for Lent. The first Sunday in Lent was even renamed "Piñata Sunday." On this day, a clay pot decorated with colored paper was filled with candy and broken by attempts from blindfolded participants. When Spanish missionaries came to America to spread the Christian word, they incorporated the piñata into their religious lessons, using it to teach people about the seven deadly sins ("pecados").

Aztec Smashing the Piñata

Despite the immigration of piñatas to the New World by Spanish missionaries, the Aztecs in what is now México had their own version. In the ceremony to celebrate the birth of their god, Huitzilopochtli, in December, the Aztecs broke open a clay pot covered with woven feathers. The treasures inside were gifts to Huitzilopochtli, which rained down on the feet of the idol.

Seven Deadly Sins Piñata

Over the years, the traditional clay pot was replaced with paper-mache, cardboard, and paper. The original shape of the piñata-- as we know it today-- was a star with seven points, with the seven points representing the seven deadly sins of the Christian religion. But the shape of the star was also a reminder of the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Three Kings to the baby Jesus.

Piñatas have a rich symbolic history. In addition to representing the seven deadly sins, Spanish missionaries used piñatas to show what temptation is by creating an appealing, decorative exterior to the piñata. They also used the piñata to teach catechism and the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. Faith was pursuing the piñata while blindfolded, Hope was looking to the sky (where the piñata was hung), longing and waiting for the reward, and Charity was destroying the attractive facade (sins) and sharing the desired gift with others.

Smashing the Devil Piñata

Some have even gone so far as to say that the piñata symbolizes the devil, who deceives, seduces, fascinates and represents himself as something he is not. The hitting and breaking of the piñata, then, represents that all humans must defeat evil-- but they must do it blindfolded, representing the blind faith one must have.

Another less-religious interpretation behind the piñata is that participants go around with eyes covered, trying to find the good things in life and working hard to get them.

Cartoon Piñatas

Nowadays, many feel that the tradition behind the piñata has been destroyed. Most people have no idea what the piñata once symbolized and even the traditional shape has been diminished by mass media. Although seven-pointed stars are still around, Mexican piñata stores most commonly supply cartoon-shaped piñatas, such as Rugrats, Snow Whites and Tweety Birds. However, for the children, piñatas are just a great way to celebrate the latest festive occasion.