Piñatas are an important part of children’s birthday parties here, but this ancient custom has become common only in the past 20 years or so.
When Juan Andrés Herrera celebrated his 4th birthday recently, his aunt made the piñata using a gift bag decorated with a Mickey Mouse face and colorful paper streamers. Neither she nor the boy’s parents had piñatas as children. Birthdays just weren’t celebrated, except for the 15th, or quince años.
Juan Andrés and his friends know all about piñatas, however, because today all children have at least one party with a piñata, and they certainly get invited to them. Piñatas are as common now in the rural areas as in the cities.
Piñatas come in all shapes and sizes. One can choose from Spiderman, Hello Kitty, a dog, the Saprissa monster, the La Liga lion, a soccer ball, Pooh, Sponge Bob, Tweety Bird or the ever popular car. Others are made of Mylar balloons with pockets on the sides to hide the surprises within. Prices range from ¢2,000-3,000 (about $3.80-5.80) or more.
Or they can be made at home with a paper bag or box decorated with crepe-paper fringe and a face or cartoon character. Homemade piñatas are just as loved as store-bought ones.
Piñatas are stuffed with peanuts, candies, confetti and little toys sold in librerías, or stationery stores. The piñata is tied to a long cord that is thrown over a rafter, a tree branch or a light fixture and raised or lowered by a mom or dad who expects to get rewarded with at least one peanut or candy.
One at a time, the children, starting with the birthday child, are blindfolded, handed an ex-broomstick or other pole, and turned around a couple of times to disorient them before they try to whack the piñata in hopes of splitting it. When that happens and a shower of peanuts, candy, confetti and toys comes down, beware: every child there will pile into the mess on the floor to grab as much loot as his or her hands can hold.
The history of piñatas goes back a long way, and surprisingly was first recorded in China by Marco Polo while he made his fortune and name in the silk trade. There, he saw hollow figures in the form of cows, oxen or other animals, covered in colored paper and filled with seeds. This was a New Year’s game that consisted of trying to knock the heads off the animals and then gather up the seeds.
A similar tradition later arose in European countries around the Mediterranean as a Catholic custom for the first Sunday of Lent.
A decorated clay pot filled with surprises was knocked off a wall or pedestal as part of Lenten festivities. The Italian word pignatta, meaning a fragile pot, may have given the piñata its name.
Meanwhile, across the ocean in Mexico, indigenous people also had a game in which they used sticks to break a clay pot filled with “treasures.” When the Spaniards came, they took over the game as well as everything else, but used it as a religious symbol. These early piñatas were round with points emanating from all sides, sort of like stars gone wild. Each point signified some facet of the faith.
Even here there are variations in the tradition. At one party, none of the children could break the piñata and finally the hostess, with one eye on the clock and the lunch growing cold, ripped open the bottom of the piñata with her hands. At another, a little girl wanted to keep her piñata and cried a flood when anyone tried to break it.
There was also a family birthday celebration with a piñata in the form of a strawberry for the “kids,” who ranged in age from 37 to 50-something.
“We never had one when we were young, so this was it,” explained one family member. The pileup yielded bruises, scraped knees and torn sleeves as well as peanuts and candy, but was lots of fun.