The piñata is a staple in Mexican culture. However, the first records of piñatas don’t come from Mexico or even Spain. The earliest records actually point to Asia — China, to be specific — as the origin of the beloved piñata.
More than 700 years ago, Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant and explorer who traveled along the Silk Road through Asia between 1271 and 1295, reported seeing the Chinese fashioning various figures (including cows, oxen, and buffaloes) and then covering them with colored paper.
These figures were filled with seeds and made in honor of the New Year. Celebrants would beat the figures with sticks until seeds spilled out. Then, they would burn the remnants and gather the ashes to bring them luck in the coming year.
After Marco Polo discovered this tradition, it was later imported to Italy and used to celebrate the holiday Lent. Eventually, the first Sunday of Lent became known as “Piñata Sunday.” The word piñata comes from the Italian word “pignatta,” which translates to “fragile pot.”
After arriving in Italy, the custom of creating and breaking piñatas spread to Spain. Here, the first Sunday of Lent involved a party known as the “Dance of the Piñata.”
The Spanish would use a clay pot, called “la olla,” as their piñata. Originally, the pot wasn’t decorated, but celebrants eventually started adding paper, ribbon, and tinsel to make the pots more festive.
Piñatas made their way to North America at the beginning of the 14th century thanks to Spanish missionaries. These missionaries used piñatas to attract indigenous people to their ceremonies in hopes of converting them to their Christian faith. They were surprised to find, though, that many indigenous people were already practicing similar traditions.
Priests would place a decorated clay pot filled with small treats and treasures on a pole at the temple to celebrate the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. When it was broken, the fillings would be released at an image of the god’s feet and serve as an offering.
The Mayan people also played a game that involved covering people’s eyes and having them hit a clay pot that was suspended in the air with a string.
Capitalizing on the indigenous people’s existing traditions, missionaries revamped the piñata to give it a more religious meaning. They created a piñata that had seven points, each of which symbolized one of the deadly sins: anger/wrath, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and sloth. They developed a ten-pointed version as well, and each point symbolized the sins that resulted from breaking one of the 10 Commandments.
Even the stick used to break the piñata had meaning. It was meant to symbolize love and was used to destroy the “sins” by striking and breaking apart the piñata. The candy and prizes that fell out of the piñata represented forgiveness and new beginnings.
Piñatas have a rich and fascinating history. Keep these facts in mind the next time you break one out (or open) for a birthday party or another celebration.