by Mario I. González
Translation: Tina French
The piñata is an object generally made of clay, cardboard or papier maché. Originally, its shape resembled a star with seven conical points. According to Catholic tradition, each of these represented the seven capital sins. Therefore, its ultimate destruction meant the extinction of sin through the birth of Jesus. This is the reason why these objects were used primarily during the Christmas season.
When they first appeared, piñatas were filled with fruit and candies, known in Mexico as “colaciones”, the reward for the rejection of sin. In this day and age, piñatas are filled with all kinds of candies, seasonal fruits, small games, trinkets and toys to delight the children.
In spite of what one would imagine, it appears that piñatas were not created in Mexico, but in China, from which place they were introduced to the west by Marco Polo himself. Moreover, it’s now a known fact that the term piñata comes from the Italian pignatta, which means “fragile pot”.
It has been said that piñatas were then taken to Spain, and continued their way towards Latin America, where the Augustinian monks took advantage of the object’s unusual qualities and used it as a means to evangelize the native population. However, it has also been found that the ancient Mexicans or Aztecs had a similar ritual in honor of god Huitzilopochtli, and that the friars, noting the similarities between the two “rites”, promoted the piñata’s process of syncretism.
This native custom was as follows: in order to celebrate the birthday of their diety Huitzilopochtli, the high priests placed an earthen pot filled with small “treasures” on a post of the temple and decorated it with colored feathers. Part of the ritual entailed that it be broken with a stick so that the treasures would fall at the feet of the god, as a special offering.
Today, piñatas are part of many types of celebrations and festivities. There are as many models as there are figures and characters. Nevertheless, what remains the same, is the excitement they inspire in the children; no matter how many centuries go by, everyone keeps striving to be the hero who manages to break the piñata!