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: 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!)