No Mexican fiesta is complete without a piñata. Children's parties especially will invariably have a time to break the piñata so the kids can enjoy this fun activity and once it's broken, collect the candy that falls out of it. But are you familiar with the origin of this activity? It has an interesting history and meaning behind it that goes beyond what you might expect from a traditional party game.
What is a Piñata?
A piñata is a figure, traditionally made from a clay pot covered with paper maché and painted or decorated with brightly colored tissue paper, that is filled with candy and fruit or other goodies (sometimes small toys). The traditional shape for a piñata is a star with seven points, but now it's very popular to make piñatas that represent animals, superheroes or cartoon characters. At parties, a piñata is suspended from a rope, and a child, often blind-folded and sometimes made to spin around several times before taking their turn, hits it with a stick while an adult pulls on one end of the rope to make the piñata move and make the game more challenging.
Children take turns hitting the piñata until it breaks and the candy falls out onto the ground and then everyone rushes to collect it.
History and Meaning of the Piñata
The piñata's history in Mexico dates back to the same time as the Christmas Posadas in Acolman de Nezahualcoyotl, in the present state of Mexico, near the archaeological site of Teotihuacan. In 1586 the Augustinian friars in Acolman received authorization from Pope Sixtus V to hold what were called "misas de aguinaldo" (special masses that took place before Christmas) which later became the posadas. It was at these masses that were held in the days leading up to Christmas that the friars introduced the piñata.
They used the piñata as an allegory to help them in their efforts to evangelize the native people of the region and teach them about the principles of Christianity.
The original piñata was shaped like a star with seven points. The points represented the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride) and the bright colors of the piñata symbolize the temptation to fall into these sins. The blindfold represents faith and the stick is virtue or the will to overcome sin. The candies and other goodies inside the piñata are the riches of the kingdom of heaven, that the virtuous who are able to overcome sin will receive. The whole exercise is meant to teach that with faith and virtue one can overcome sin and receive all the rewards of heaven.
The Piñata Today
Nowadays in Mexico piñatas are an important part of birthday parties and other parties for children. People don't really think about the meaning behind the piñata when they play it, it's just a fun thing for children to do (and sometimes for adults as well!). At birthday parties, breaking the piñata is usually done just before cutting the cake. Piñatas also figure prominently in the celebration of the Posadas at Christmastime, where it may have more relationship to the original symbolism.
Although the star shape is still favored at Christmas, piñatas now come in a very wide variety of designs. In Mexico, many piñatas are often still made with a ceramic pot, but you will also find some that are made purely of paper maché. The ones with a pot inside are easier to break because they don't swing so much when you hit them, but they can also pose a danger, of shards flying as the piñata breaks.
The Piñata Song:
As the piñata is being hit, a song is sung:
Dale, dale dale
No pierdas el tino
Por que si lo pierdes,
Pierdes el camino
Ya le diste uno
Ya le diste dos
Ya le diste tres
Y tu tiempo se acabo
Hit it, hit it, hit it
Don't lose your aim
Because if you lose it
You will lose your way
You hit it once
You hit it twice
You hit it three times
And your time is up
Plan a Mexican Party:
If you're planning a party with a Mexican theme, you can sing the traditional Mexican birthday song, Las Mañanitas at your party, and make your own piñata. See more resources for planning a Mexican fiesta here: Throw a Cinco de Mayo party.