Planning a piñata for your next birthday? Tidbits presents the origins and meaning of this entertaining party activity.
• Although we usually associate piñatas with Mexico, it’s likely they originated in China, where they were part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Those piñatas were shaped like cows, oxen, or buffalo, covered with colored paper, and embellished with harnesses and bridles. The Chinese version was filled with various types of seeds, and struck with colored sticks in hopes of a favorable upcoming growing season. Once the piñata was broken, the pieces were burned, and the people gathered up the ashes to keep for good luck.
• Marco Polo is acknowledged as the one who brought the piñata from China to Italy. It was here that they received their name taken from the original Italian word “pignatta,” meaning “fragile container.” Spreading throughout Europe, it became a part of the Christian celebration of Lent, with the first Sunday of Lent becoming known as “Piñata Sunday.” The Spanish started with a plain clay pot, decorating it with colored paper and ribbons, filling the pot with treats.
• The Spaniards brought the European piñata tradition to Mexico in the 1500s, but learned that the Mayans and Aztecs already had a similar practice in place. The Aztecs used the piñata to honor the birthday of their god Huītzilōpōchtli. Aztec priests decorated clay pots with feathers as a tribute to this god of war, sun, and human sacrifice.
• The piñata became part of religious ceremonies in Mexico, symbolizing man’s struggle against temptation. It was in the shape of a star with seven points representing the seven deadly sins – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
• The vessel’s bright colors symbolized the lure of sin and the stick was the will to overcome evil. The blindfold signified faith, while the goodies inside were the riches of heaven’s kingdom, denoting the reward of keeping the faith.
• In the early Mexican ceremonies, the person with stick was turned round and round, signifying the disorientation that temptation can create. The person was turned 33 times, one for each year of the life of Jesus Christ.
• Today the piñata has lost most of its religious connotation, and most are created from cardboard or papier-mache, although in Mexico, you can still find those manufactured from clay pots. Although the pots are easier to break, they pose a danger of flying shards of pottery. In Mexico, the Christmas season is welcomed through “Las Posadas,” a tradition celebrated from December 16 – 24, in which the traditional star-shaped piñatas are included in the festivities. In the U.S., they are frequently shaped like donkeys or cartoon characters.
• Piñatas aren’t just a party activity. The artistic event Pinatarama is an exhibition of original works of art by graphic illustrators and designers, featuring artists from 23 countries.
• In 2008, residents of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were on hand to view the world’s largest piñata, a giant donkey measuring 93.5 feet (28.5 m) long, and 59 feet (18 m) tall, filled with 8,000 lbs. (3,628 kg) of candy. A wrecking ball was used to help smash the piñata. That record has since been smashed by a 47-ft (14.32 m) tall piñata created in the shape of an orange pretzel M&M standing on a birthday cake in commemoration of the first birthday of M&M’s pretzel chocolate candies in 2011.
• In 2018, the city of Sainte-Catherine, Quebec, hosted the world’s largest display of piñatas, 1,166 in all, all homemade.
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