past & present

Past & Present: Pinata History + our favorite pinatas

by Amy Azzarito

Illustration by Julia Rothman

This Sunday is Cinco de Mayo. And it’s more than just a day to drink margaritas and micheladas (not that I find anything wrong with either). Following nearly 15 years of successive wars (the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the Mexican Civil War of 1858, and the 1860 Reform Wars), the Mexican Treasury found itself nearly bankrupt and the government declared a two-year moratorium on all foreign debt repayments. France decided to use this opportunity to establish a Latin empire in Mexico that would favor French interests. The May 5th holiday commemorates a battle between a well-equipped French army numbering 8,000 and a much smaller, poorly equipped Mexican force of 4,500. On May 5, 1862, the Mexicans managed to decisively defeat the larger French army. Not only was it the first defeat for the French  in 50 years and a huge morale boost to all Mexican people, it was also an important event for the direction of the U.S. Civil War. And was a considered a victory for all the people of the Americas – the day was celebrated in the American West as early as 1863. Although the victory, was short-lived (the Mexicans won the battle but lost the war). The French occupation was also short – lasting only three years. By 1865, with the US Civil War over, the U.S. government provided both political and military assistance to aid Mexico in expelling the French.  I love that we have a day to honor the culture and heritage of our neighbors to the South. So today, in celebration of  Cinco de Mayo, we’re taking a look at the history of the piñata.  And after the history lesson, I just might make that margarita.  –Amy Azzarito

p.s. (The New York Times has a great article about the May 5th battle and its importance).

If you’ve read enough of these Past & Present columns, you’ve probably realized how Decorative Arts history is rarely confined to a single culture. To me, that’s why it’s so fascinating. The story of Decorative Arts is about how we share ideas and change customs to suit our own needs (and then the material stuff that is created when the cultural exchange happens). And the piñata is certainly no exception. Although today, the piñata is strongly associated with Mexican culture. It had a bit of a circuitous route – traveling from China, to Italy and to Spain before arriving in Mexico. However, even the order of that route is debated. Some stories credit Marco Polo with bringing the piñata from China to Italy. In his travels through China, Marco Polo saw the Chinese make hollowed figures of cows, buffaloes and other animals and then decorate the shapes with colored papers and ribbons, even crafting harnesses for them, as a traditional way to celebrate the harvest. These hollowed animals were filled with seeds and were then beaten with sticks so that the seeds spilled on the ground. The ritual was thought to ensure a good harvest. Then somewhere around the 14th century, the piñata custom was applied to the traditional celebration of Lent in Italy. The first Sunday became known as Piñata Sunday. The word piñata actually has an Italian origin and comes from the Italian word pignatta meaning earthenware cooking pot and pigna meaning pine cone. And these early Italian piñatas were earthenware pots shaped like a pinecone.

Image above: Mexico Christmas breaking the piñatas, between 1909-1919, Library of Congress

More piñata history + modern piñata roundup after the jump!

Another theory puts the piñata in Italy much earlier than the 14th century. It is thought that piñatas were used in the Roman Empire. These piñatas were also clay pots, this time filled with fruit. Agricultural workers in the countryside would smash the pots to mark the end of the harvest season. In this version of the piñata story, Caesar’s troops brought the ritual to Spain. Then, in both versions of the piñata creation story, the Spanish conquistadors brought the custom to Mexico when they conquered that country in 1521. Perhaps the Mexicans eagerly adopted the custom because of similar Aztec and Mayan rituals. During the birthday celebration for Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, priests would hang a clay pot on a pole in the temple. The pot was adorned with feathers (the symbol of the hummingbird god) and filled beads, berries and nuts. When the pot was broken, the treasures falling to the ground signified favors coming down from the gods. The Mayans, who loved games of all kinds, played a game where the central player’s eyes were covered with a cloth while he tried to hit a pot suspended by a string. Spanish missionaries transformed these games for religious instructional purposes – crafting a religious piñata, with seven points, each with streamers. Each point represented one of the seven deadly sins – the participant, (who is blindfolded, and in some traditions is turned 33 times – one for each year of Christ’s life.) wages a battle against these seven sins.  Today the piñata has mostly lost its religious character and has become just one part of the Mexican art of cartonería, traditional Mexican papier-mâché sculptures. Today piñatas are popular around Christmas time and for birthday celebrations. But I wouldn’t mind raising a piñata stick along with my margarita in honor of Cinco de Mayo.

Image above: piñatas booth, photograph 1968, University of Texas at San Antonio

Image above: 1. small pentagon pinata $98 | 2. dodo bird pinata $70 | 3.  pina pinata $40 | 4. pinata buster $4.49 | 5. unicorn pinata $90 | 6. rainbow pinata $10.59

Image above: ConfettiSystems Diamond Pinata-Silver $150

Image above: anchor’s away pinata $120

Image above: me&u pinata (contact for pricing)

Image above: petal pinata $54

Image above: Confetti eggs $8 (not exactly a pinata but too cute to leave out!)

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  • Growing up in southern California, my sister and I had a pinata at every birthday party (and we don’t have a drop of Latin blood!). I thought this was de rigueur for birthday parties across the country until I went to college on the east coast. My artistic father always made the pinatas by hand with papier mache. He would fulfill any request we had — including a cat one year, and white life preserver (like off the titanic) for a nautical party, and a likeness of my face for another. I now look back and think “Wow, we had it good!”

  • Fantastic pinatas! I really love the metallic look. And that dodo bird is just fantastic, would be great for a pirate-themed party.
    If anyone wants to attempt a DIY on a diamond-shaped pinata, I have free templates for 5 different shapes of diamonds/gems that could come in handy.
    Here’s a link: http://liselefebvre.com/shop/paper-kits/

  • Great post Amy, love your attention to detail. This has got to be the best researched piñata post/article I’ve read ever. I am from Mexico City and we still break piñatas in the “posadas” during Christmas time to this day so I feel the religious character is still there. I live in Dallas now and in the US is a whole other story, but just this past Christmas we organized a posada with my friends and taught the little kids why we were breaking a piñata, to break the sins. I loved your post!

  • Thanks for the history lesson about Cinco de Mayo and the pinata! Growing up in New Mexico, there were pinatas at most all birthday parties, but I had no idea they were originally for harvest celebrations and used for spreading seeds.

  • Those confetti eggs are also known as “cascarones” (singular: cascaron”. They are a kind of cottage industry in Southern California. Families work all year on making them to sell at local festivals. They are an integral part of Old Spanish Days in Santa Barbara. They can be quite simple like the ones pictured, or they can be very elaborate with faces and crepe paper hair-do’s.

  • Thanks a lot for taking the time to explain what 5 de Mayo really is! Greetings from a mexican fan :)

  • is a really interesting post! very useful, i’m from Guadalajara and i always remember that piñata means party whenever we celebrate but mostly for Christmas season and birthday!! the best are made it with clay pot rather than cardboard, the fruit and candy stay there and the clay help them to not be smashed with every hit and also it break like.. (the way i remember..) pretty nice!! :) great post!

  • I love pinatas! Especially the Mexican mache burro, for some reason that just does it for me. The cutest shape, I think it’s from my obsession with horses as a girl. But there is also just the joy of beating the tar out of something cute to get candy that brings out the happy in kids of all ages. It’s like a pre-video game video game.

  • Dear Amy, I agree with the Mexican mommy living in Dallas (I live in Mexico City): it´s the best article on piñatas and 5 de Mayo I’ve read from a non mexican. Also very interesting the heritage you mentioned from Italy, I lived for a while in Rome, and it was surprising to know that mostly in the South of Italy, they have a similar tradition, there they call it “la pentolaccia” which means “small pot”.

    I looooove all and every single of your post´s. Thank you!!!

  • I liked your story and today I saw a crazy adult stripper looking piñata, my husband said it was Wonder Woman, but it looked like she was wearing a g-string and nothing more. We both laughed and I told him some kid is going to be traumatized like our daughter. She was four when we got her a clown piñata for her birthday, we never knew until she was a teenager. Happy Cinco de Mayo!

  • Oh my goodness! Pinatas were a part of my upbringing with my sisters. Every year for our birthday we would have one outside and my dad would heist the pinata from inside the house to make it a challenge to hit. Such good times!

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