A piñata is a decorated container of paper or clay that contains sweets, small toys, fruits, and nuts. It is the object of a game played in Mexico at children's birthday parties and at Christmas celebrations, in which blindfolded children take turns trying to break the piñata with a stick to release the treats.
Yet the piñata has a long history. Piñatas are typically made of paper-mâché, and are attributed to China where paper originated. Marco Polo is believed to have seen Chinese paper figures of bulls and other animals covered with colored paper and filled with seeds. When struck with a stick, the seeds spilled out. As part of the ritual, the paper creation was then burned and its ashes gathered for good luck. Polo likely brought the idea to Italy, where by the 14th century it was associated with celebration of Lent, and acquired the Italian name pignatta or "fragile pot." This custom spread to Spain in subsequent centuries, but involved a clay pot called la olla, derived from a colloquial Arabic word for a terracotta water jug. Paper decorations and ribbons were wrapped around the pot to make it festive.
Missionaries brought the custom to New Spain, where it encountered a similar tradition. To honor the Aztec god of war, a decorated, filled pot was broken in the temple at the feet of the god's statue. Catholic missionaries employed the colorful piñata custom to teach Christian religion. A traditional Mexican shape for piñatas is a spherical shape with seven conical points symbolizing the seven deadly sins—greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath, and lust. Inside the piñata, however, were tempting sweets and treats, representing the pleasures of life. The person wielding the stick of virtue represents faith, which can defeat evil, and the treats represented the hope of reward.
This symbolic piñata became traditional at Christmas, and is shown here. Today, piñatas come in the shape of animals, cars, and cartoon characters. Making piñatas for children's parties is a major industry, especially since the custom continued to spread around the world.
Photograph (top) Victor Ancheta, "Christmas Piñata," Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/victorancheta/2167074229/in/photostream/; (bottom) Katia Lopez-Hodoyan, "Piñata: Party's Game Is Ancient History," La Prensa San Diego, February 6, 2004, http://www.laprensa-sandiego.org/archieve/february06-04/pinata.htm; Wendy Devlin, "History of the Piñata," Mexconnect, http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/459 (accessed January 26, 2010). Annotated by Susan Douglass.
How to Cite This Source
"Piñata [Object]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #411, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/411 (accessed October 24, 2014).