The Most Fascinating Facts About the Latin American Piñata
Every child dreams of having a brightly colored piñata filled with delicious candy on their birthday. But where did the tradition of stuffing a hollow cartoon or animal-shaped object with candy come from? This unique custom has a long, rich, and religious, history.
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What is a Piñata?
Piñatas are colorful hollow figures, often shaped like animals, characters, or other objects. They’re filled with candy, sweets, or other goodies. To open this exciting container, you hit it with a stick while blindfolded until it breaks. Then everyone rushes to grab the fallen candy!
How the Piñata Got its Name
The piñata most likely got its name from the Italian word for pot: pignatta. This is because early piñatas were constructed from clay containers used for carrying water.
The Origin of the Piñata
Although the piñata is often associated with Latin American culture, it actually originated in China!
Dating as far back as the 13th century, the Chinese celebrated the new year with seed-filled clay figures in the shape of cows, oxen or buffalo. They hit the figures with a stick until they burst open and dropped the seeds. Then, they burned the remains and kept the ashes for good luck throughout the year.
During the 14th century, an Italian named Marco Polo traveled to China where he saw these colorful clay figures. Polo liked the tradition so much that he brought it back to Italy, where it later spread to Spain. In Spain, the piñata became associated with the Christian celebration of Lent. It also became an important part of the first Sunday of Lent (Piñata Sunday). But the piñata didn’t stop there.
How the Piñata Arrived in America
In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries brought the piñata to America. However, Mesoamerica already had a similar tradition of their own. The Aztec used to break a clay pot covered in colorful feathers to celebrate the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, the deity of war and sun. The pot was broken with a stick so that the inside treasures fell to the feet of the idol as an offering. Meanwhile, the Mayans also had a similar custom. They played a game where players covered their eyes while hitting a clay pot suspended by a string.
As the Spanish were colonizing America, they combined the Spanish piñata with the idigenous traditions in order to draw the indigenous peoples in and convert them to Catholicism. For this reason, these piñatas were full of religious symbolism.
They depicted the piñata as a parable for good versus evil by creating a star-shaped piñata with seven spikes to represent the seven deadly sins. Players had to wear a blindfold when trying to break the piñata as a representation of blind faith in God. The sweets and fruits inside the piñata symbolized the rewards of the kingdom of heaven by overcoming the temptations of the earthly world.
The new piñata tradition spread quickly throughout Mexico and eventually to the rest of Latin America. The piñata is still a popular tradition in today’s age, however, it’s evolved greatly over time.
Nowadays, the piñata is more of a fun party treat, rather than a religious symbol, and the original clay pot has been replaced with a papier-mâché container. From Christmas parties to birthday celebrations, this work of art continues to evolve.
Piñatas Around the World
Today, piñatas of all shapes and sizes are spread throughout the globe. They are especially popular in Latin America. You can find them in countries like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama and many others. Here are a few examples of how one tradition can vary by country.
Mexico is the country most associated with this exciting custom. Piñatas in Mexico get filled with fruit in addition to the typical candy filling. Oranges and guavas are some favorite fruits to use while jicamas, pieces of sugar cane, tejocotes and wrapped candies are also popular. Piñatas are most often used during the Christmas season with birthdays falling shortly behind.
Participants also sometimes sing songs while attempting to break the piñata. Here is a tune you might hear at a piñata party:
No quiero níquel ni quiero plata
Lo que yo quiero es romper la piñata
I don’t want nickel or silver
I only want to break the piñata.
The United States
While piñatas are popular in Mexican-American and other Hispanic and Latino groups in the United States, they have spread far outside of these communities. Piñatas are popular for birthday parties, Christmas, and Cinco de Mayo celebrations throughout the country. However, they usually do not have any religious significance, rather, they are simply a fun treat for children!
In Guatemala, in addition to using piñatas for every single child’s birthday celebration, they use a piñata in the form of the devil during the 7th of December celebration called Burn the Devil Day or, La Quema del Diablo. They burn the piñata, but have it stuffed with fireworks instead of candy!
This tradition of burning the devil comes from the colonial times, while using a devil piñata began in the early 1990s. Before this they used to collect dry wood and leaves called chiribisco to burn it. This is an important holiday as Christmas festivities begin in earnest on the Burn the Devil Day.
Piñatas gained popularity in Cuba during the 1940s and 1950s as an important addition to children’s birthday parties. However, they did not make piñatas to be broken with a stick. Rather, they opened them with ribbons that flowed out from beneath the base.
Children dance around the piñata, each holding one end of a ribbon, taking care not to pull. An adult then gives a signal for everybody to pull and the bottom of the piñata drops out!
Sometimes the adults rig the piñata so that only one special ribbon causes the bottom to fall out—which is often reserved for the birthday child. Children then take turns pulling at it until it finally opens.
Traditionally, Chileans used piñatas to celebrate a good harvest. However, today, they are made from natural materials and associated with various occasions. Their inside treats represent wishes and the person who breaks the piñata will have good luck throughout the coming year.
Chileans say that there’s no birthday party worth having unless there is an impressive piñata to break!
- Piñata Day is observed on April 18th.
- Some piñatas are actually “traps” filled with confetti, flour or water as a prank!
- In Mexico, piñatas are sometimes used as political commentary. Unpopular political figures are made into a piñata form so they can be hit and broken by their opponents.
- In Guatemala, in order to protest corruption, they make piñatas in the form of a rat!
Share Your Piñata Story
Does your family have any traditions with regards to this colorful container of goodies? Tell us in the comments below! Piñatas have a long and rich history. Hundreds of years since its origin, this custom is still widely popular in today’s age. Why do you think piñatas have lasted so long?
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