You Probably Didn’t Know This Surprising History About Piñatas
Many of us look fondly on piñatas as the highlight of celebrations. From birthday parties to las posadas, the traditional activity never gets old. While many think of beating a piñata as a children’s activity, we all have older family members who join in on the fun, blindfolded, spinning around and batting wildly at the air.
Although we’ve batted at piñatas and basked in its treasures more times than we can count, we never stop to think of the history behind the tradition.
When and where did piñatas originate?
The answer to this question is more interesting than you may have thought! Scholars believe that, in the Eastern Hemisphere, piñatas originated in China as part of the celebration of the New Year, over 700 years ago. The Chinese would fill their piñatas with a mixture of seeds as a ritual to ensure favorable weather for farming.
Piñatas then traveled to Europe — and Spain in particular — where they took off. In 14th century Spain, piñatas were broken as part of a celebration of Lent. In fact, an entire day was devoted to the activity, called Piñata Sunday.
The word piñata comes from the Italian world ‘pignatta’, which translates roughly to “fragile earthenware pot.” They were called this because the original piñatas were just clay pots that participants broke open with a stick. Eventually, people began to decorate the clay pots with colorful paper, ribbons and streamers.
But it was in Mexico that piñatas cemented themselves as a local tradition. Interestingly enough, some Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica already had a traditional practice almost identical to piñata-breaking. In mid-December, in celebration of the birth of the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec people would mount a clay pot decorated with feathers on a pole and, while blindfolded, hit the pot with a stick. When it broke, treasures would fall out.
Naturally, when Europeans landed in present-day Latin America, they used this point of cultural crossover as a tool to convert Indigenous peoples to Christianity. It was then that the piñata began to symbolize something else entirely.
What do piñatas symbolize?
In Mexican Catholic tradition, the piñata symbolizes man’s fight against temptation.
Over the years, the piñata has become a seven-pointed papier mâché creation most popular during las posadas. Each point represents the seven deadly sins. The container inside represents evil. The candies inside the container represent temptation. Being blindfolded while being spun around represents faith during the confusion of temptation. And of course, hitting the piñata represents the fight against temptation. When the candy spills from the piñata, that symbolizes the rewards of faith.
Today, piñatas are still a staple of Mexican culture, especially during las posadas. In Mexico, piñatas are often filled with guavas, sugar cane, wrapped candies and tejocotes. But the joy of piñata has spread from Mexico to cultures all over the world. They no longer hold the religious significance like they used to, but they still hold just as much fun.
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