Does “piñata” bring to mind a child’s birthday party, Latin culture or Mexico?
This colorful, simple tradition – made of cardboard and Paper Mache stuffed with candy and small toys – originated in China and arrived in Europe via Marco Polo (1254-1324).
Marco Polo observed how small figures of cows, oxen and buffaloes covered with colored paper, adorned with harnesses and trappings, were an integral part of the Chinese New Year celebration. The mandarins would strike the figures with colored sticks until the content – seeds – would spill. These were burned; the ashes gathered and were kept in the homes throughout the year as tokens of good luck. Upon his return to today’s Italy, Marco Polo described this tradition which eventually found its way into the celebrations of Lent.
The Italian word “pignatta” means “fragile pot,” which is fashioned to resemble clay containers for carrying water.
The custom of the “piñata” spread to Spain and sailed to the New World (XVI century) with Spanish missionaries who used it – as another means – to attract converts to Catholicism. The custom was easily accepted by both Aztecs and Mayans because they each had a similar tradition. Part of the birthday celebrations for Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, called for their priests to place a richly decorated clay pot adorned with colorful feathers on a pole. As an offering to the god, the pot was filled with tiny treasures. When broken with a stick or club, the content spilled to the feet of the god’s image.
Records show the Mayans as sports lovers who enjoyed a game where each player was blindfolded while hitting a clay pot suspended by a string. Spanish missionaries incorporated and modified this Aztec and Mayan tradition into their religious teachings. Records show missionaries covering the “piñata” with colored papers. The decorated “piñata” was a representation of Satan, believed to wear attractive masks to disguise his identity, and thus draw people to become sinners. Blindfolded participants hit the “piñata” in an effort to fight the forces of evil. Once broken, the candies and fruits that spilled out were said to serve as rewards for keeping the faith.
Eventually, the “piñata” lost its religious association.
Today it stands for fun and entertainment, not only for Latin-American children, but for children and adults of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities.