by Benjamin Clark, Curator of Education
What do you know about the history of piñatas? A week ago, my knowledge of piñatas was strictly confined to birthday parties before 1987 and a college visit to Casa Bonita in Denver. But, the piñata question sprung on me while researching the exhibit Tierra de mi Familia: Oklahoma, now on exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center.
The history of piñatas is double pronged. The word piñata comes to us today from the Italian word pignatta, a pinecone-shaped clay pot (from pigna, “pinecone”). What are the Italians doing with piñatas? The story goes back to Marco Polo and his monumental journey to China. While in China, Polo observed the Chinese making clay vessels in the shape of animals to celebrate the New Year. The animal pots would be fashioned with appropriate trappings, like harnesses and decorated with colored paper. They would fill the vessels with seeds and nuts and celebrants would take turns whacking the vessel until the seeds and nuts spilled out. They would then burn the vessel, the nuts and seeds and gather the ashes as good luck for the New Year. He made these observations around the year 1295. Over a couple hundred years, the pignatta tradition spread into Spain, was adopted into Catholic celebrations for Lent and given many layers of religious symbolism.
When Spanish missionaries arrived in Mexico they observed Aztec celebrations for Tlaloc, the rain god, involved suspending a decorated clay pot and striking it with sticks. There are also accounts of suspending and breaking a decorated clay pot to honor Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, on his birthday. So, the Spanish missionaries likely incorporated piñatas into the Christmas celebration, known as Posadas, celebrating Christ’s birthday. From these initial Spanish contacts, the tradition spread throughout Central and South America and to the Caribbean.
Today are still used to celebrate Posadas, but also to celebrate secular holidays, birthdays, and visits to Casa Bonita by college students.
To learn more about piñatas and Latino contributions to Oklahoma, be sure to visit Tierra de mi Familia: Oklahoma on on exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center.