History of Mexican Pinatas
Everybody knows the drill: A pinata is hung from the ceiling and children take turns being blindfolded and given a stick or broom handle to try to knock open the toy. The lucky one who bashes it hard enough starts a wild scene as goodies spill out and throngs of kids run to get them.
Though famously popular in Mexico, pinatas come from another part of the world: China. Westerner Marco Polo first saw them there as figures of farm animals covered in paper and decorated in different colors. Seeds spilled out when the figures were hit with sticks. They were used in ceremonies to ensure a faithful harvest. Polo brought them with him when he returned to Europe.
The name "pinata" may have originated in Italy from the word "pignatta," meaning fragile pot. Pinatas at the time resembled water containers. Pinatas became popular in Europe in the 14th century, when they were adapted for Lenten celebrations. The first Sunday after Ash Wednesday became known as "Pinata Sunday."
The pinata made its way to Spain, where the first Sunday of Lent became a festival called "Dance of the Pinata." The Spanish used clay containers called ollas (pots) for their pinatas, which at first were undecorated. They later were made more eye-catching with ribbons and different colors. From Spain, missionaries helped spread the pinata to the New World.
The Aztecs already had a similar concept before missionaries arrives. At year's end, they celebrated the birthday of Huitzilopochtili (god of war) with a priest placing a clay pot on a stick. The pot was brightly decorated with feathers and filled with tiny treasures. The pot was be broken with a stick and the treasures used as an offering. The Mayans had a game in which a blindfolded player would try to hit clay pots suspended overhead.
Pinata and Religion
At the beginning of the 16th century, Spanish missionaries used the pinata to entice indigenous people. They covered pots with paper to give them a somewhat frightening appearance, which led to the pinata becoming a representation of Satan wearing a mask as disguise. The pinata also took on the traditional satellite shape, with its seven points representing the seven sins. Even the treasures took on sinful aspects: temptation and greed. The indigenous people were told to fight temptation, with the stick taking on the value of virtue. The star-shape pinata came to be a tradition during the posada, the Mexican Advent celebration.
Mexico and Beyond
Mexican artisans started using cardboard and papier-mache to make the pinatas. The figures of pinatas were part of Mexican heritage and ethnicity. Artists began coloring the pinatas different colors, especially bright red, white and green, the colors on the Mexican flag.
The pinata has spread all over the world. As it was used more often at birthday parties and other celebrations, its religious significance waned.
Roel A. Garcia is originally from SouthTexas, but now resides in West Michigan. He has written for "The Alice Echo News Journal" in Alice, Texas and for "The Holland Sentinel" in Holland, Michigan. He has been hired as an adjunct professor at a community college in Western Michigan. He earned a master of arts degree in English from Texas A & M University--Kingsville.
Photo by kevinrosseel @ morguefile.com