The story is that Marco Polo,encountered the Pinata in China. He saw the Chinese fashioning figures of cows, oxen or even buffaloes, covering them with colored paper and adorning them with harnesses and trappings to greet the New Year. When they knocked the figure hard with sticks of various colors, seeds spilled forth. The remains were then burned and people gathered the ashes to bring good luck throughout the year.
When the custom passed into Europe in the 14th century, it was adapted to the celebration of Lent. The first Sunday became ‘Piñata Sunday’. The Italian word ‘pignatta’ means “fragile pot.” Originally, piñatas fashioned without a base resembled clay containers used for carrying water.
The custom then spread to Spain, the first Sunday in Lent becoming a fiesta called the ‘Dance of the Piñata’. The Spanish used a clay container called “la olla”, the Spanish word for pot. At first, “la olla” was not decorated. Later, ribbons, tinsel and fringed paper were added and wrapped around the pot.
At the beginning of the 14th century the Spanish missionaries to North America used the piñata to attract converts to their ceremonies. However the indigenous peoples already had a similar tradition. To celebrate the birthday of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, priests placed a clay pot on a pole in the temple at year’s end. Colorful feathers adorned the richly decorated pot, filled with tiny treasures. When it was broken with a stick or club, the treasures fell to the feet of the god’s image as an offering.
The missionaries ingeniously transformed these games for religious instruction. They covered the traditional pot with colored paper, giving it an extraordinary, perhaps fearful appearance.
The original & traditional piñata has seven points symbolizing the seven deadly sins: envy, sloth, gluttony, greed, lust, anger/wrath, and pride. The ten pointed piñata symbolizes the sins that come from breaking the Ten Commandments.
The stick which is used to break the pinata represents and symbolizes love. It is supposed to destroy the sins by hitting and breaking the pinata into pieces. The candies and treats that come pouring out from the broken piñata symbolize the forgiveness of sins and a new beginning.
While the religious significance has been mostly lost, the ceremony that occurs with it has remained mostly intact. Piñatas remain most popular during Las Posadas with birthday parties coming in second. Each participant, usually a child, will have a turn at hitting the piñata, which is hung from above on a string. The participant is blindfolded, given a wooden stick, and then spun a number of times. As the participants works to hit the piñata, another moves it to make it harder to hit. There is a time limit to any one person's attempts, which is marked out by the singing of a traditional song.
Piñatas were traditionally made with a clay pot base and many artisans make a living selling just the pot for people to decorate as they wish. However, clay pot piñatas have mostly been replaced by those made with cardboard and paper mache, usually fashioned over balloons. One reason for this is that broken pot pieces can be dangerous to children. These are then decorated with crepe paper, other colored paper and other items. Piñatas today come in all shapes and sizes, with many representing cartoon or other characters known to most children. The star shape, or ball with points, still remains popular for the Christmas season, but for other events, traditional designs for children such as donkeys, have almost entirely been replaced by cartoon characters based on U.S. movies and television shows.