History of the Piñata

The first written record of the piñata states that Marco Polo discovered them in his visit to China. There he saw the Chinese constructing figures of cows, oxen and water buffaloes from brightly colored paper and filled them with seeds. The figures were used for all sorts of celebrations throughout the year, just as they are now. The figures would be hung from a tree or scaffold and a selected person was blindfolded and hit at the figure with a brightly colored stick until it broke and the seeds spilled onto the ground. The seeds were gathered by the less fortunate and the paper figures were set afire. Afterwards, people collected the ashes for good luck.

Marco Polo brought the idea back to Italy in the 14th century and it was adapted to the celebration of Lent. In Europe the first devices were shaped to resemble a clay pot used for carrying water. The Italian word, “pignatta” means fragile pot, and thus they were known as “pignattas” in Italy. The first Sunday of Lent was known as “Pignatta Sunday”.

When the custom spread to Spain, the Spaniards thought the device resembled a pineapple and when they heard that the Italians called them “pignatta” they interpreted it to mean little pineapple as “piña” is Spanish for pineapple. The Spaniards used a thin clay pot filled with seeds, and at first they did not decorate the piñatas. Later they used brightly colored paper, ribbons and tinsel as decoration. In Spain, the first Sunday of Lent is known as “Dance of the Piñata”.

Pre-Existence in Mexico

The Chinese inspired piñata made it’s way to North America at the beginning of the 16th century with the Spanish missionaries. Imagine their surprise when they arrived to find the indigenous people already had their own piñata, that they used to celebrate the birthday of the Aztec God of War – Huitzilopochtli! What they found was a richly decorated clay pot filled with small treasures and adorned with bright feathers and hung from a rope attached to a pole. Just as in China and in Europe, a person was selected, blindfolded and given a stick to beat the clay pot until it broke and the treasures, that were considered an offering to Huitzilopochtli, fell to the floor.

If one is to believe the widely-accepted Land Bridge Theory first postulated in 1590 by José de Acosta (that the ancestors of the Maya crossed the Bering Strait at least 20,000 years ago), it makes perfect sense that the piñata would have existed in Mexico thousands of years before the Spaniards reached Mexico with their own Chinese version. Furthermore, researchers have long believed that the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica and perhaps earlier peoples came into existence with the help of Chinese refugees, particularly at the end of the Shang dynasty around 1046 BC.

In 1975, Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution argued that the Olmec civilization originated due to Shang Chinese influences around 1200 BC.In a 1996 book, Mike Xu, with the aid of Chen Hanping, claimed that the very same La Venta celts discussed above actually bore Chinese characters. These claims are unsupported by mainstream Mesoamerican researchers.The evidence relied on by Mike Xu, including the coincidence of markings on Olmec pottery. And, many agree that there are striking resemblances between Chinese and early Mesoamerican art. However, it may have been just another of the many inventions that the people of Mesoamerica came up with on their own.

Religious Significance of the Piñata

Although the piñata was not originally a religious icon, the Spanish missionaries were quick to take advantage of the presence of the piñata and invent stories that could be believed by people in the missionaries attempt to convert them to Christianity. These stories allowed the piñata to come to represent Satan hiding the treasures of hope for humanity, that could be obtained by overcoming the disorientation and with blind faith breaking through the mask of Satan.

You may have seen the traditional piñata (created by the Spanish missionaries) with the seven points, each with streamers, radiating from the central core. The seven, cone-shaped, points represent the seven deadly sins of greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath and lust. The treasures or candies inside the core represent the temptation of wealth and earthly pleasures. Yes, the Spanish missionaries used the piñata to present religious instruction or catechism of their theological virtues. Some tell the story that the star-shaped piñata is suggestive of the Star of Bethlehem and it’s guiding light to salvation.

The clay pot inside the piñata was also called a cantero and was implied to represent Satan, wearing an attractive mask to attract humanity. The blindfolding of the person selected to break the piñata was explained by the Spanish missionaries to represent the leading force in defying evil, i.e. faith, which must be blind. The spinning of the person was meant to confuse the sense of space and the person was spun thirty-three times in memory of the life of Christ. Some tell the story that the spinning signifies the deceits of Satin or false directions, which disorient people in their beliefs. Even today, you will hear calls of Engaño (deception or trick) from some in the crowd as the person attempts to break the piñata.

Even the positioning of the piñata overhead was explained by the missionaries as looking toward the heavens, yearning and awaiting the prize. The stick that is used to break the piñata, which was originally brightly painted was altered to white by the missionaries, with white symbolizing virtue, as only good can overcome evil and break the piñata.

The breaking of the piñata symbolizes charity and as it spills forth it’s treasures, the contents are shared in the context of divine blessings and gifts from above for having destroyed Satan.

A popular song in Mexico contains reference to the religious connotation of the piñata:

“Dale, dale, dale,
No pierdes el tino,
Porque si lo pierdes,
Pierdes el camino.
Ya le diste una,
Ya le diste dos,
Ya le diste tres.
Y tu tiempo se acabó.

Hit it, hit it, hit it,
Don’t lose your aim,
Because if you lose it,
you lose the way,
You hit once,
You hit it twice,
You hit it three times,
And your time is up.

While the moral of the piñata has lost much of it’s religious symbolism, it is still popular during the traditional Las Posadas of Christmas and in other festivities in which people give thanks and look hopefully to the future.

Piñatas Today

Today, with the loss of the religious connotations, piñatas can be found in all shapes and sizes. To make them attractive to children, many represent cartoon or other characters known to most children. For older children and adults, you will see piñatas representing implied religious forms of  baskets of fruits, the fruit itself, or heaven-bound rockets. And, as the piñata was meant to imply Satan and many consider politicians to be evil, you will find satirizations of politicians.

Piñatas are often filled with wrapped candies, although one may find guavas, oranges, jicamas (sweet roots), sugar cane and tejocotes (a form of crab apple). And to maintain the belief that the piñata represents the trickery of Satan, you may find piñatas (referred to as traps) that contain flour or confetti in lieu of candies to show how one can be tricked.

During the attempted breaking of the piñata, the children gather around closely in anticipation of the rewards. When the piñata is broken, there is a scramble to gather the treats. Little baskets of candies or snacks (colaciones) are kept to present to any child who is left without a treat as a consolation. Many times, the children are forewarned of the practice of sharing their collected bounty as a form of biblical reference, i.e. in Luke 3:10-11, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

The piñata does indeed have a long tradition of meaningful use in celebrations throughout the world. It has changed, just as people have changed, but it remains a popular tool for teaching children life’s lessons.