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The History of the Piñata
Image credit: Maddie San Martin

It Originated in China

Today, the Piñata is a staple at many celebrations and plays a particularly central role in Mexican fiestas. You may think of it as just a simple object, but it has a surprisingly fascinating history! The piñata is thought to have originated over 700 years ago in Asia. Specifically, the Chinese used to fashion paper-covered animals to celebrate the New Year. They decorated paper-covered animals (which included cows, oxen, and buffalos) with colorful harnesses and other trappings. Then, they filled the figures with seeds and knocked them with sticks until the seeds spilled out. Afterwards, the remains were burned; the ashes were thought to bring good luck in the coming year. It is thought that Marco Polo discovered this Chinese practice and introduced it to the Western world.

It Became Part of Lenten Traditions in Europe

In the 14th century, the piñata entered Europe and was quickly adapted to the Christian season of Lent. The first Sunday of Lent was known as “Piñata Sunday’ – the name comes from the Italian word pignatta, meaning “fragile pot,” because early European piñatas resembled clay pots. When the custom spread from Italy to Spain, the first Sunday in Lent there became known as the “Dance of the Piñata.” The Spanish fiesta featured a clay container called la olla (the Spanish word for pot); originally, it was not decorated, but over time decorations like tinsel, ribbon, and fringed paper were added.

Indigenous Peoples Had Their Own Version

When Spanish missionaries travelled to the Americas, they used the piñata to attract crowds and attention at their ceremonies. However, the indigenous peoples already had their own tradition that was similar; to celebrate the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, Aztec priests put a clay pot on a pole in the temple at the end of each year. The clay pot was decorated with feathers and filled with small treasures. When broken with a stick, the treasures would fall at the god’s feet as an offering. The Mayans also played a sport where a player’s eyes would be covered and they would have to try to hit a hanging clay pot.

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Missionaries Gave It Religious Meaning

The missionaries transformed these indigenous traditions for the purpose of religious instruction. They covered the traditional pot in colored paper so that it appeared different (and perhaps even scary) to the local peoples. The original piñata features seven points; the missionaries used these to symbolize the Seven Deadly Sins in Christianity: envy, sloth, gluttony, greed, lust, anger/wrath, and pride. (There is also a traditional ten-pointed piñata, which missionaries said symbolized the sins that come from breaking the Ten Commandments.) The missionaries said that the stick used to break the piñata represented love. The stick, representing love, destroyed the piñata, which represented sins and temptation, thus imparting a religious lesson. Some people also say the piñata was meant to represent Satan. The treats (usually candies and fruits) that fell out of the broken piñata were said to represent God’s forgiveness of sins and a new beginning. Another interpretation holds that the fruits represented temptations and earthly pleasures, while yet another holds that the sharing of the fruits and candies represented a reward for keeping the faith – a share in divine blessings and gifts.

Today, the piñata has lost most of its religious meaning. Instead of being used as tool to teach the Christian catechism, it is simply a fun pastime at celebrations. It’s especially popular at Mexican fiestas and is used to mark special holidays, such as Christmas and Cinco de Mayo. It’s also popular at children’s parties, and many commercially available piñatas are made in the likeness of beloved children’s characters.

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