The Tradition of Piñatas: The History Behind the Fun!

Did you know there’s actually a day to honor the piñata? That’s right, April 18 is National Piñata Day. It’s not exactly clear why they have a designated day, but while we’re passing the time at home, why not learn a little about these colorful and festive objects? They’re full of tradition and making your own piñata at home could be a fun project with the kids. You could even fill it with the left-over Easter candy!

A Long Journey for the Little Donkey

It has been said of the pinata: China invented it, Italy named it, and Mexico claimed it for all time!  The cute little treat-filled donkey that comes to mind when we think of piñatas has had a long and interesting journey! 

We usually associate piñatas with Mexican culture, but history shows they originated long ago and far across the globe. In 13th century China, people decorated figures like cows, buffalo, and oxen with colorful paper and ribbons. They filled them with various seeds. When celebrating the new year, they would hit the figures with sticks, spilling out the seeds to encourage prosperous crops and bring good luck.

Explorers brought the piñata concept to Europe and the activity quickly became popular, especially in Italy and Spain during the season of Lent. Piñatas at that time were made of decorated clay pots. In fact, the word piñata comes from the Italian word pignatta, meaning “an earthenware cooking vessel.”

In the 16th century, European explorers introduced the tradition in Mexico. They must have been surprised to find that the Aztecs and Mayans were already doing something similar!  The Aztecs filled decorated clay pots with treasures to be spilled as an offering to their gods. The Mayans blindfolded the person hitting the piñata, just like our modern tradition. Monks modified the European and Mesoamerican traditions and a 7-point star-shaped piñata became part of the Christmas tradition of Las Posadas.   

A Festive Part of Modern Celebrations

While piñatas have a long history of religious significance, most modern celebrations use them just for fun. The clay pots (ouch!) have been replaced with friendlier materials and the traditional star shape has been outnumbered by every colorful design you can imagine. From animals to superheroes to cartoon characters and beloved toy figures, modern piñatas are a fun part of festivities in many countries today. They’re still filled with traditional items like candy, nuts, fruits, and little toys or gifts. Some are even trick piñatas, filled with surprises like flour and confetti, or water balloons. Imagine the shock for the lucky person who breaks those! 

star-shaped piñata, Spanish Schoolhouse

Family Ideas for Piñata Day

If you’re curious, why not use April 18 as a chance to do a little cultural research with your kids? Here are some interesting facts you could look up together.

Did you know?…. ¿Sabías que? 

  • The Mexican town of Acolman hosts a National Piñata Fair each year, drawing over 100,000 people!  Find a picture of it, then draw your own.
  • In Mexico, the art of making modern piñatas involves a craft called cartonería – the art of making items from cardboard and paper.  What materials can you use in your house?
  • In 2010, the world’s largest star-shaped piñata won the Guiness record. It was almost 37 feet wide and weighed nearly 775 pounds! How much candy would that hold?!

If you’re up for messy fun, try making your own piñata at home with everyday materials!  There are lots of online videos of methods with balloons and papier-mâché. Or check out this awesome one made with cardboard diaper boxes!  

And when you’re ready to gather around the piñata and take turns at cracking it open, don’t forget to sing along to this song, written especially for the occasion!     

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