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Thursday, January 20, 2022

The history and significance of the noble Mexican piñata 

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Historians note that piñatas likely have their earliest historical origins in China, where they were part of new years celebrations and tended to take the form of farm animals such as cows and oxen.

However, there also seems to be evidence that Mesoamerican peoples, including the Aztecs, had a similar tradition during celebrations in honor of the god Huitzilopochtli.

Contemporary Huitzilopochtli piñata, honoring the Aztec roots of piñatas. Photo: Courtesy

Regardless of origin, 16th-century Mexicans ran with the idea, built upon it, and made it their own — eventually creating the piñatas we all know and love today.

The first recorded instance of piñatas in colonial Mexico dates to 1586 during a Christmas celebration hosted by Agustin monks in what is today Nezahualcóyotl, in Mexico State. 

The popularity of piñatas really began to take off and take on more modern recognizable designs in the 19th century in central Mexico. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

During this time, one of the most iconic piñata designs, the nine-pointed star, is said to have originated. It is said that each of the points of the star was intended to represent a deadly sin and that its shiny exterior symbolized its dangerous appeal. 

Large decorative nine-point piñata in the city of Puebla represents the original nine deadly sins. Photo: Courtesy

The treats that burst from the piñata after breaking it open were said to symbolize the bounty offered up by god after the defeat of sin. 

Traditional Mexican piñatas are made by covering a clay pot with paper mache and other decorative elements. However, since the tradition has become closely associated with children over the past half a century or so, the hard pots have been removed from most designs and are now molded using wiring, paper mache, and lots of glue. 

Traditional piñatas molded around clay pots can still be purchased, but are harder to find. Photo: Wikimedia foundation

Nowadays, piñatas are considered an integral part of Mexican culture and can be found at celebrations running from birthday parties, baptisms, Christmas parties, and new years celebrations. 

Piñatas for sale in small shop in the Yucatecan city of Valladolid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The homes of most locals have a small hook or pulley built into the roof of their garage or some open area to accommodate the hanging of piñatas. But if this option is not available they are often dangled from rooftops — a considerably more dangerous proposition. 

When not being used to dangle piñatas, these hooks and pulleys are often used to hang chimes or other decorations. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But it is really in late December that markets across Mexico begin to burst at the seams with this fun paper mache tradition. The design of piñastas can take on just about any form imaginable, from children’s characters to public figures and in recent years even representations of the dreaded Coronavirus. 

Public health undersecretary Hugo López-Gatell and the COVID-19 virus in piñata form. Photo: Courtesy

While in other countries piñatas have become popular as well, they are downright expected to be present at any Christmas posada, new years celebration, or children’s party — even if only two or more actual children are expected to attend. 

Giant piñata shaped ornament in Mérida’s Parque de las Américas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Unlike in other regions of the country, in Yucatán piñatas are broken using one’s fists, instead of sticks or batons. Children take their turns at the piñata, usually arranged by age, and are traditionally allowed to hit the piñata three times. During the children’s rampage, adults and other children the “piñata song,” counting each blow. 

Even places of business such as restaurants and retail shops are known to hang piñatas in Yucatán during the holidays. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When the piñata is eventually broken, or the adults holding it up by hand or pully decide its time, the piñata bursts open, as all the children throw themselves onto the floor to collect as much candy as they can. In this scenario is truly every child for themselves, though trades and pity candy for the smaller children are common practices.

Children swarm to the floor to pick up as much candy as their little hands will allow to scoop into a bag. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

People in Mexico like to joke that the quality of a party can be assessed by the quality of the candy in the piñata, so you better not cheapen out! Chocolates and caramels are usually the most popular. It is also a good idea to avoid candies that break easily, for example, marzipans.  

Even if no children will be in attendance, it is always a good idea to get a piñata just in case. Either way,  your guests are likely to be amused at the sight of a piñata such as this. Photo: Courtesy

So if you are having any kids join you over the holidays in Mexico, you better make sure to pick up a piñata if you have not done so already and pick up lots of good candy while you are at it. 

When abroad Mexicans often note the inferior quality of the piñatas available at party stores, such as this rather plain-looking ghost piñata purchased in Norway. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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