History of the Piñata


(CL) -- Piñatas are centerpieces of birthday parties and other festive and celebratory events. Children try to break open the piñata to enjoy the bounty of candy and other goodies hidden inside. However, the piñata didn't always have its roots in children's entertainment.

The piñata is associated with the Latin culture. Yet, historians point to Asia -- namely China -- as the original point of origin. It is surmised that upon visiting China, famous traveler Marco Polo witnessed the Chinese creating colorful figures of animals covered in paper that were strung up with harnesses. These figures were used in celebrations for the New Year. Polo brought the ideas of these early pinatas to Europe.

Europeans linked the piñata with Lenten celebrations. The first Sunday of Lent became "Piñata Sunday," derived from the Italian word pignatta, meaning "fragile pot." The custom spread to surrounding areas, like Spain, where the Lenten celebration was transformed into a fiesta. The Spanish celebrated with the "Dance of the Pinata." They used a clay container for the piñata called la olla, the Spanish word for pot.

Word of the piñata traveled across the ocean to America. Spanish missionaries to North America brought their pinatas along. They covered them with colored paper to make them look scary, in the hopes of attracting people to their religious ceremonies.

Eventually, the piñata acquired a religious meaning. The decorated piñata itself was intended to represent Satan, who was believed to wear attractive masks to disguise his true identity and draw people to become sinners. The piñata took on a satellite form -- a ball with seven cones sticking out, each with streamers on the end. The cones represented the seven deadly sins or, pecados: greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath and lust. Candies and fruits inside the piñata stood for the temptations of wealth and earthly pleasures. Blindfolded participants were instructed to hit at the piñata in an effort to fight the forces of evil. The stick for breaking the piñata symbolized virtue. Once broken, the candies and fruits within the piñata represented the participants' reward for keeping their faith.

Slowly, the piñata lost its religious association and, today, it is generally regarded as a symbol of fun and entertainment. It can be used during the Christmas season or at birthday parties, and is no longer just reserved for the Latin culture; people of all nationalities and backgrounds take turns hitting the piñata. Yet, Hispanic families can still be heard singing traditional songs while taking turns at the piñata: "Dale, dale, dale, no pierdas el tiro, porque si lo pierdes, pierdes el camino. Esta piñata es de muchas manas, solo contiene naranjas y canas." (Hit, hit, hit. Don't lose your aim, because if you lose, you lose the road. This piñata is much manna, only contains oranges and sugar cane.) Lyrics courtesy of the Argonne Hispanic/Latino Club.