MEXICO Project: Christmas Symbols: Piñatas
In Mexico one of the most recognisable Christmas symbols is a piñata (pin-yah-ta).
I made three piñatas for the piñata page as part of the ‘celebrations and festivals’ section of my kids book on Mexico. First, a 7-cone star (estrella) representing the Star of Bethlehem; second, a donkey (burro) representing the animal on which Mary rode pregnant to Bethlehem; and third, a Christmas tree (árbol de Navidad) – all of which are traditional shapes used for the 9 days of Las Posadas, Christmas and the Three Kings in Mexico. At other times, piñatas are usually shaped as different animals or cartoon characters, but can be other shapes too.
A piñata is a hollow shape made out of paper, cardboard and glue. It is decorated with coloured crepe and tissue paper as well as other items using a papier-mache technique. Traditionally, it had been made from adobe (olla de barro roja). Each piñata is filled with sweets, small toys, fruits and yam beans.
Breaking of the piñata as a popular party game is traditionally associated with Mexico used for special celebrations and festivities. It is an essential form of entertainment for kids at Las Posadas, Christmas, the Three Kings and birthday parties. However, the piñata probably originally comes from China. The Chinese version was in the form of cows, oxen or buffaloes, covered with coloured paper. It was filled with seeds and then broken with a stick during the New Year celebrations. The remains were burnt and ashes served for good luck throughout the year.
The piñatas were introduced from China to Europe in the 14th century by the explorer Marco Polo. They were adopted for the first Sunday of the Lent (Piñata Sunday). In Spain, this festival was called the Dance of the Piñata. The Spanish made them out of clay in the form of a pot (olla de barro roja). Later on, ribbons and colour paper were added. The word piñata probably comes from the Italian word pignatta meaning a ‘fragile pot’. It is also linked to the Spanish word piña meaning a pineapple.
Introduction of piñatas to Mexico and their religious significance
The Spanish missionaries brought the European tradition of piñatas to Mexico in the 16-century. They used them to attract the indigenous people to the Christian ceremonies. However, there had already been similar traditions before the Spanish Conquest. The AZTEC tradition was to celebrate the birth of their supreme god, Huitzilopochtli, in mid-December. Priests would attach a clay pot decorated with colourful feathers on a pole in the temple of the deity and when hit with a club, the hidden treasure would fall at the feet of the idol as an offering. Similarly, the MAYA, who were great lovers of sport, played the game in which a player was blindfolded while hitting the clay pot suspended by a string.
The Augustinian monks modified their European tradition by incorporating aspects of these games for their religious instruction (catechism). They also created Las Posadas tradition to co-opt the commemoration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli. A small town just north of Mexico City, Acolman (State of Mexico), claims, according to the local sources, to be the origin of the Las Posadas tradition as well as the birthplace of piñatas in Mexico. It helds an annual national Piñata and Las Posadas Fair (Feria de la Posada y la Piñata) in early December.
Traditionally, the piñatas therefore had a religious significance. The Mexican Catholic interpretation of the piñata was based on the struggle of man against temptation. The decorated CLAY pot (cantero) represents SATAN, who wears a variety of masks to attract people. As the traditional style of the piñatas is in the shape of a seven-pointed star, the CONES represent the SEVEN DEADLY SINS, known as the cardinal vices or capital sins (pecados) – greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath and lust. The seasonal FRUITS and SWEETS inside the piñata symbolise the TEMPTATIONS OF EVIL (of wealth and earthly pleasures). The piñata, therefore, reflects 3 THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES – faith, hope and charity. First, the BLINDFOLDED PERSON with a stick – the main force in defying evil – stands for FAITH (Fe). The spinning of the blindfolded person and singing by the other participants represent the disorientation caused by the temptation. The person is turned thirty times, one spin for each year of Christ’s life. Second, the piñata is a symbol of HOPE (Esperanza). As the piñata is hang from the above, participants look towards the sky/heaven (los cielos) waiting for the award. While hitting the piñata signifies the struggle against temptation of evil, the stick itself symbolises virtue as only good can overcome evil. Once the piñata is broken, the TREATS inside represent the AWARD for keeping the faith. And third, the piñata symbolises CHARITY (Caridad) as every participant shares in the divine blessings and gifts!
How to make a piñata
For the star, I used a papier-mache technique though I think that it is unnecessary if you are using a clay pot. It is however essential if a balloon is used to make the body of your star or any other round shapes. In this case, the two websites are useful: first and second. I would recommend not to use the shiny metal based paper as it is difficult to shape around the round shaped pot.
For the other two shapes I decided to use useful DIY instructions on Oh Happy Day blog, which uses a glue technique rather than the complications of a papier-mache technique using a flower-water mixture, which takes ages for a piñata to dry. I used crepe, China and hand-made amate papers. The Christmas tree was decorated with snow flakes using crochet.
While the piñata has now lost the religious significance, the ceremony remains the same. To play the game, the piñata is hung up from a string suspended from a tree or a ceiling. Each child has a turn at hitting the piñata with a wooden stick. Before hitting the piñata, the child puts on a blindfold. The other players spin him or her round, while an adult is moving the piñata away from the blindfolded child. The player can try to hit the piñata in the time it takes for the other players to sing a traditional song. The game is finished when the piñata breaks and everything inside falls on the ground. P.S: The photos below are from one of Las Posadas in Tlacolula (Oaxaca Valley) where children where not blindfolded, nor where they span around, but the piñatas were being pulled up and away from children making it harder to hit.