A Smashing Success: The Surprising History of the Piñata in Latino/x Culture

Born in China, christened in Italy, and raised in Mexico . . . the little donkey everyone loves has come a long, long way! Read about the surprising origins of the piñata and how it became an iconic symbol of Hispanic and Latino/x culture!

What’s the History of the Piñata? Why Is It So Popular in Hispanic and Latino/x Culture?

The piñata is a well-known part of Hispanic and Latino/x culture that has also become quite popular in the U.S. — even among people who don’t have Hispanic or Latino/x roots. Walk into any big box store across the country, and you’re likely to find a variety of a piñatas in the party section, ready to be filled with treats and to bring a touch of magic to a kid’s birthday party. But, even though the piñata is soooo popular, most people don’t realize how far back its history goes and how many different cultures played a role in the evolution of this important part of celebrations all over Latin America. So, where did the piñata come from, and how did it become a part of Hispanic and Latino/x culture?

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Historians believe that the iconic burro piñata we know and love today likely evolved over the past 700 years from a mix of Chinese, Spanish, Aztec, and Mexican cultural, religious, and artistic traditions. In short, the most widely accepted theory is that the piñata was: made in China, christened in Italy, and raised in Mexico!  

From China through Europe and on to the New World and its presence in the celebrations of many Hispanic and Latino/x cultures.

Born in China

In the late 13th century (the 1200s), Marco Polo, an explorer and merchant from Venice (Italy), traveled the “Silk Road” — the name for what was then the main trade route between Europe and Asia. He wrote a famous book about his experiences, and he also brought home interesting things and ideas that later spread across Europe.

An 1954 Italian postage stamp celebrates the 700-year anniversary of Marco Polo’s travels between Venice and China along the Silk Road.

While in Asia, Marco Polo came across a New Year’s tradition involving hollow sculptures shaped like the local farm animals (cows, oxen, and water buffalo). Villagers would craft the sculptures out of a paper-like material and stuff them with seeds. As part of a celebration, they would hang the sculptures and hit them with sticks until they broke and the seeds poured out, symbolizing their hope for good weather and an abundant harvest in the coming year. The sculptures and seeds were then burned in a bonfire and the ashes gathered for good luck.

Marco Polo is believed to have brought a Chinese New Year tradition back to Italy that inspired an early European version of the piñata.

Christened in Italy

Marco Polo is said to have brought a few examples of the Chinese sculptures home with him that inspired Italians to adopt a similar tradition, give it a European name, and use it as a symbol in Christian religious ceremonies. In the early 14th century (the 1300s), Italians began to fill clay cooking pots called “pignattas” with treats and break them to celebrate the first Sunday of in the Catholic season of Lent.

Instead of animal sculptures, the Italians used clay pots called pignattas.

The Spaniards later adopted this tradition with slightly different clay pots and a Spanish spelling: piñata. Although the pots were plain at first, over time, the Europeans began to decorate the piñatas with colorful ribbons and paper.

Raised in Mexico

The piñata really “took off” (pun intended) and began to make its way into Hispanic and Latino/x culture in the 1500s, when Catholic missionaries began traveling across the Atlantic to Mesoamerica (parts of modern-day Mexico and Central America) with the Spanish Conquistadors.

The Missionary Transposition

The missionaries discovered the happy coincidence (from their point of view, of course) that similar traditions already existed among the native Aztec and Mayan populations. Religious missionaries have long known that converting other peoples is easier if you can associate your religion with something they already do or believe in. The Aztecs celebrated the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, their god of war, with a piñata-like ritual every December (which is also the month in which Christianity celebrates the birth of Jesus). Aztec priests would decorate a clay pot and fill it with small gifts and then place the pot on a pole in the temple of Huitzilopochtli. The clay pot was then hit with a stick until it broke open, showering the god with the gifts in honor of his birthday. The Mayans (who were very much into sports and competitions) also played a game in which the players’ eyes would be covered and they would have to try to hit a hanging clay pot.

The Spanish missionaries took advantage of the similarity of the piñata to these existing traditions to help attract the native populations to Catholicism. The first recorded (written down in the historical record) use of the piñata by Spanish missionaries took place in 1586 in the town of Acolman de Nezahualcóyotl (now a part of Mexico) close to Teotihuacan. Augustinian friars organized special masses in the 12 days leading up to Christmas where they used the piñata to help teach the native people about the principles of Christianity. The priests decorated the piñatas with seven cones to represent the seven deadly sins: envy, sloth (laziness), gluttony (overconsumption), greed, lust, anger, and pride. Smashing those cones and the piñata with a stick to release its treats was likely meant to symbolize the defeat of evil and the rewards of good behavior.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Linares Garcia via Wiki Commons CC BY-SA 4.0/Statue of a Franciscan friar hitting a piñata in Acolman, Mexico State.

A Donkey in the Manger

These original Christmas masses developed to include the Mexican tradition of Christmas posadas. The Spanish word posada refers to an inn or hotel. A Christmas posada is a reenactment or “play” of the biblical journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus while they were staying in the stable of an inn. Piñatas remained a part of these Christmas celebrations, and, because Mary was said to have traveled to Bethlehem on a donkey, the piñatas were often decorated to resemble a burro.

Foul Clay?

Over the last 100 years, the material used to make piñatas has changed from clay to paper, and piñata celebrations have expanded way beyond Christmas posadas (and also beyond Mexico to other Hispanic and Latino/x cultures). Mexico has a long artistic tradition of paper/cardboard-based crafts known as cartoneria. Mexican people began by using their cartoneria skills to decorate clay pot piñatas in elaborate ways (like the burro described above). But clay pots are heavy, and when they shatter, the shards can be sharp and dangerous. So, eventually, the clay pots were phased out in favor of lighter and safer piñatas made completely out of papier mache and decorated with crepe paper. This change also meant that piñatas could be made to look like almost anything and used to add fun to non-religious celebrations such as children’s birthday parties.

The piñata is a ubiquitous part of children’s birthday parties in Hispanic and Latino/x cultures.

¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

All over Latin America, many children’s parties now include a piñata, and the celebration often varies a bit by country. In general, though, in Hispanic and Latino/x cultures, the piñata is hung on a string from the ceiling (if the party is indoors) or a tree (if outdoors), and the kids (and sometimes the adults!) take turns trying to break it. During his or her turn, each child is blindfolded and given a stick to hit the piñata. The child also may be spun around a number of times, and the other children may try to swing the piñata to make it harder to hit. Sometimes, the children also sing a song.

There are a number of typical “piñata songs” that range from straightforward . . .

Dale, dale, dale,  / Hit it, hit it, hit it,
No pierdas el tino, / Don’t lose your aim,
Por que si lo pierdes, / Because if you lose it,
Pierdes el camino. / You’ll lose your way.

Ya le diste uno, / You hit it once,
Ya le diste dos, / You hit it twice,
Ya le diste tres,/ You hit it three times,
Y tu tiempo se acabó! / And now your time is done.

. . . to goal-oriented . . .

No quiero niquel ni quiero plata, / I want neither nickel nor silver
Lo que yo quiero es romper la piñata / What I want is to break the piñata.

. . . to full of (well, er) wordplay and vivid imagery . . .

La piñata tiene caca, tiene caca… cacahuetes de a montón, / The piñata has poop, it has poop, and peanuts by the bunch,
La piñata tiene pipi, tiene pipi… pipitorias a montón, / 
The piñata has pee, it has pee, and peanut candy by the bunch, 
Andale niño(a), no te dilates, con la canasta de los cacahuates! / Hurry up kid, and don’t delay with the peanuts in the basket!   

Each child’s turn ends when either the song is over or the piñata breaks. And, of course, when the piñata breaks and the candy falls all over the floor, there is a mad scramble to see who can grab the most!

In another variation, the piñata is made with a special panel in the bottom. A bunch of ribbons are attached to the panel and left hanging from the bottom of the piñata. Then, instead of hitting the piñata with a stick, each child is given a ribbon to hold onto. After a brief countdown, the children all pull on their ribbons at the same time, popping out the panel and releasing the candy from the piñata.

Striking Choice

Part of the fun of a piñata party is picking what you want the piñata to look like. In Mexico, artisans still make piñatas by hand in small workshops in an assortment of traditional and modern styles. You can buy one ready-made or have it made to order in almost any shape — from the iconic burro to other interesting objects (think rainbows, unicorns, and cacti) and the latest animated characters. The piñatas are sold in market stalls or stores (typically, dulcerias) along with a mind-blowing assortment of sweets to stuff in them.

The Journey Comes Full Circle

Unlike in Mexico, many of the piñatas that are sold in the U.S. today are mass produced in China and other parts of Asia. They travel in shipping containers on boats sailing ocean trade routes that function as the modern equivalent of the ancient Silk Road that Marco Polo traveled long ago. Depending on your worldview, you may see the fact that piñatas are once again being “Made in China” as either ironic or as evidence that, in the journey of life, all things eventually come full circle, back to their beginnings. Either way you look at it though, there’s no denying that —  historically speaking — the piñata has been a smashing success in Hispanic and Latino/x culture and beyond!

The iconic symbol of Hispanic and Latino/x culture comes full circle, once again being made in China and shipped to the New World!

If you love piñatas (like we do), check out our articles on how to make a mini piñata and the best piñata treats for teens! And for more on Hispanic and Latino/x culture, and to find out about internships, programs, competitions and scholarships for middle and high school students (many of which do outreach to Hispanic and Latino/x teens), be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter.