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The Wonderful History of the Piñata

Friday, July 31st, 2020
pinata celebration

The piñata is a wonderful party fixture that many of us have undoubtedly seen before. There is a certain joy to be found in watching the children take turns swinging at a paper-mâché animal while blindfolded. And when the piñata bursts open to reveal the hidden surprise of candy and toys, the melee is delightful. 

So where did these curious party tokens come from? 

The piñata’s origins

Believe it or not, these traditional fixtures of Mexican culture were first seen in Asia. Brightly colored animals made out of paper materials would be filled with seeds, then hung up for people to take turns striking. Once the figure burst open and spilled the seeds contained within, the Mandarins would then burn the piñata for good luck in the coming year.

These little paper creatures captivated Marco Polo, the famed explorer, when he visited China. As a result, he took them back to Europe. 

The piñata in Europe

When the piñata landed in Europe, it began to transform. They shed the shape of animals and morphed into that of clay pots bedecked with decorative materials. In fact, the word piñata comes from the Italian word, pignatta, meaning “fragile pot”. 

In the fourteenth century, piñatas were a celebratory feature of Lent. “Piñata Sunday” was the first Sunday of Lent. In Spain, Piñata Sunday became the fiesta called “the Dance of the Piñata”. Curiously, it is also in Spain where the piñata once again underwent a transformation from clay pots to the original form of animals bedecked with ribbons, colorful paper, and filled with sweets. 

The piñata in North America

The piñata was one of the customs carried with Spanish missionaries who touched down on the wild soil of the Americas in the 1700s. Several of the natives of North America had specific rituals of paying homage to one of their gods by breaking a pot of water before the altar. Seeing the similarities between the clay pot of water and their own custom, the missionaries introduced the brightly colored piñata as a token that they hoped would entice the pagan natives to their monothiestic religion. 

With this purpose in mind, the piñata once more began to shapeshift in appearance. Seven cones became a common feature of the piñata, representing the seven deadly sins. And as people would take turns striking the piñata, the explicit symbolism was the power of the individual to attack the deadly vice of sin with the aid of the Christian religion (the bat). 

In some records of the tradition, the wielder of the bat would be blindfolded and spun around 33 times, in homage of how many years Christ lived on earth. The sweets contained within the piñata would symbolize the rewards of living by the Christian religion’s tenets. 

As the centuries progressed, however, the piñata began to lose its status as a religious symbol and once more became more a celebratory charm. The seven cones gave way to the bright, colorful forms of various shapes and animals. 

The final form of the piñata

By way of luck and the passage of time combined with the quirks of culture, the piñata has become deeply seated in Mexican culture as a party custom. But to those who know its origin story, it is a curious transformation that serves to highlight the fantastic metamorphosis of a culturally significant object throughout the centuries. 

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