The long and surprising history of the piñata

A generation ago, at birthday parties around Australia, it was custom to stuff children full of cheap lollies, and not uncommon to give them a whack now and then, so it’s little surprise that piñatas have caught on here. Also stuffed with treats and belted with a big stick, the piñata goes way beyond just being a fun game. It has a long and surprising history.

The heroes of any Mexican birthday celebration, piñatas are originally from China. Bet you didn’t know that. For local new year celebrations, the Chinese would make figures of animals like cows and buffaloes, covered with coloured paper and ribbon, that were meant to produce good weather for the growing season ahead. A more sombre affair than the sugar-fuelled spectacle we enjoy today, these farmyard friends were filled with different seeds, and when they were eventually busted, the remains were burnt and the ashes kept for good luck.

It wasn’t until the 14th century that Marco Polo brought the ritual back to Italy, and it spread to Spain, where it was tweaked for the celebration of Lent. The Italian word pignatta translates as ‘cooking pot’, which adds up, since old school piñatas were all made of clay.

When the Conquistadors took America, they famously discovered cities of silver and gold, but they also found some clay jars that looked a lot like their piñatas from back home in Spain. Turns out the Aztecs had their own tradition going on: they’d decorate earthen cookware with colourful feathers and smash it in celebration of their God of War. Not only that, but the Mayans had a similar tradition that was even closer to the modern game, including blindfolding the person holding the stick. Of course, instead of marvelling at the similarities between their cultures, the Spanish missionaries jumped on these customs and used them as a tool for ‘saving’ the locals and converting them to Catholicism.

Still centuries away from being fun and frivolous, the traditional style of piñata was a star with seven cones, each cone representing one of the seven deadly sins. The breaking of the piñata symbolised the triumph of good over evil, and the lollies and fruit inside stood as the temptation against wealth and earthly pleasures. Being blindfolded implied blindly following your faith, and being spun around thirty-three times was one revolution for every year that Jesus was alive. Not exactly an uplifting party starter.

Mercifully, the piñata lost its religious significance long ago. The clay pot was replaced by papier-mâché, the celebrations spread beyond Lent and Las Posadas in Mexico, and now kids (and adults) around the world get to whack piñatas of every shape and size, free of any spiritual guilt. From Disney characters to sports stars, if it exists in popular culture there’s a good chance you can buy a piñata-shaped version near you. The biggest seller in both America and Mexico today? Apparently, it’s Donald Trump.


This story is from Issue 8 and just like a paper piñata stuffed with yummy recipes, craft and inspiring stories, there’s plenty more inside Lunch Lady! You can order back issues from our Shop here.