Piñatas are a common sight in all parts of the United States. They were brought to Kansas by people from Mexico. Usually covered with brightly colored tissue or crepe papers, they resemble objects, animals, and even popular cartoon characters. Most people believe piñatas are a strictly Mexican tradition, however, the piñata originated in Italy during the Renaissance.
In the early part of the 16th century, Italians played a game that involved blindfolding a person and having him or her swing a stick at a clay pot, which was suspended in air. it is unknown what was contained within the pot. This clay pot was called a pignatta. The word comes from the Italian word pigna, meaning cone-shaped.
By the middle of the 16th century, Italians had brought their pignatta custom to other countries in Europe. In Spain the word pignatta was changed to the Spanish word piñata, and the custom was given religious significance. The breaking of the piñata occurred only during Lent. The first Sunday of Lent was designated as Piñata Sunday. On this day people in Spain put on black masks and held masquerade balls called the Dance of the Piñata. During the dance, a piñata was broken.
Unlike the Italian word pignatta, which referred to the clay pot, the Spanish word piñata referred to the game itself. The piñata container was called an olla and was unglazed and undecorated. The olla's usual function was to hold food and water. Some people began to cover the clay pot to make it more attractive.
There is no recorded date as to when the pinata arrived in Mexico, but there is some speculation that the custom was carried there by Spanish explorers. In Mexico the pinata continued to have religious significance, however several changes did occur. The custom of the piñata is more closely associated with Christmas rather than Lent, although piñatas are used for many types of celebrations and holidays.
The appearance of the piñatas also changed. During the 20th century, with the availability of tissue paper, Mexicans began to decorate piñatas. When tourism in Mexico increased and tourists started buying piñatas, potters could not keep up with the demand. They searched for an easier method of making piñatas, and the papier maché version became common. More elaborate figures such as bulls, stars, and donkeys could be made quickly and sold for souvenirs and celebrations.
Many families make their own piñata, passing techniques on from generation to generation. Others buy their piñatas. Sometimes piñata-making parties are held and several families bring treats to fill the piñatas. since the arrival of the custom in Mexico, candy, nuts, fruits, and sometimes small toys are used to fill the piñata.
Diverse stories and customs are attached to the traditional piñatas. One tale states that the piñata symbolizes evil or the devil. It is believed that when the piñata is broken, evil has been overcome and the world is rewarded with many blessings, symbolized by the treats. In the state of Tuscany in Italy it is common to hang three piñatas during certain celebrations. Each piñata contains a surprise such as ashes, water, and candy. The player breaking the piñata has no idea what he will be releasing.
Today the custom of the piñata can be found in such countries as Spain, Italy, Portugal, British Honduras, Latin American, Canada, and the United States. it is enjoyed by children and adults alike and has been a part of many types of celebrations.
Pinata Making Techniques
Some families continue to use a clay pot or jar for the base of their piñata. A large jar is made of clay and baked in a kiln or oven. It must not be baked too long or it will be too difficult to break.
Today many piñatas are made using a papier maché method. In this method paper strips are dipped in a glue-like substance and applied to a base. the base of the pinata determines the shape. Bases can be made of hatboxes, paper bags, or chicken wire covered with cloth dipped in plaster of Paris.
One of the easiest ways to make a piñata is to cover a balloon. Balloons can be round, egg shaped, long, or a combination of these shapes. After inflating a balloon, paper strips dipped in paste are applied in layers. An opening at the top of the piñata must be made so that it can be filled with treats later. Four layers of paper will give the piñata strength. When the piñata is dry the balloon can be removed. A harness, made with rope or twine is attached so that it encircles the pinata from bottom to top. Piñatas are decorated using strips of tissue paper folded lengthwise and cut into fringe. Sometimes piñatas are decorated during a party. Traditionally, on the day of the party, pastries are baked to served to guests, and piñatas are filled with candy, nuts, fruits, and sometimes toys.
Although the piñata has assumed a number of forms and uses during its history, the basic nature of the custom has remained constant. Perhaps it is the simple nature of breaking the piñata that makes it so adaptable to diverse environments. This flexibility also contributes to its continuation over time. while other customs have disappeared or become localized to particular communities, the customs surrounding the piñata remain widespread. One change that has come in recent years is the tendency to use piñatas for more personal celebrations, such as birthday parties. Rather than viewing this as a loss or dilution of the tradition, it can be seen as characteristic of this tradition and of traditions in general. Through this adaptive force it is likely that the custom of the piñata will continue to thrive for many generations to come.
Traditions 1993 © KSHS
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: August 2012
Date Modified: August 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.