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Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Olga Rosino, Belinda Mendoza & Christine Castro
Dale, dale, dale, no pierdas el tino, Porque si lo pierdes, pierdes el camino.
Hit it, hit it, don't lose your touch, Because if you lose it, you miss the direction.
If you are a native of the borderlands, you can probably remember having sung this refrain while breaking a piñata at a special occasion.
Piñata are very common in the border area and are now gaining in popularity throughout the United States. These tissue-paper-covered pots can be shaped to fit just about any party theme. Their use as a party favor or decoration is very familiar to us on the border. But it may surprise you to find out the origin of this popular party game.
Historians disagree on the true origins of the piñata .Same believe that Marco Polo, an Italian, brought the piñata to Italy from the Orient. Others say the Italian nobility invented the piñata in the 16th century as a game to amuse themselves at masquerade balls. The game was played by blindfolding a person, who then tried to strike a clay pot suspended from the ceiling with a stick. They called this clay jar pignatte (cone shaped). As gifts from the host, jewels, baubles and treats spilled from the broken pot.
In the middle of the 16th century, Spaniards adopted the custom of the piñata from the Italians. They celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent. Nobles put on black masks and entertained themselves with a masquerade ball. A ritualistic dance developed from this Lenten custom, the Dance of the Piñata. The Spaniards were also the first to paint designs on the piñata jar.
The piñata then reached Mexico when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. The Spanish missionaries adopted the piñata custom as part of their teachings of Christianity. They used a round clay pot with horns to represent the devil, a figure that horrified the Indians. The Indians were taught that once a person broke the symbol of evil and sin, good triumphed.
The stick used to hit the piñata represented man's union with God, the God who helped and strengthened the Indians so that they could defeat the devil. The rope used to move the piñata up and down represented the temptations that Christians faced. The movement of the piñata made it more difficult to hit, just as sin is difficult to overcome.
As evil is often disguised in real life, the blindfolded person hitting the piñata could not see sin for what it really was. Once a person broke it, then gifts that were concealed inside the figure fell upon the floor. These goodies represented the graces and gifts that God gives to people when they defeat the evil in their lives.
Years later the Mexicans would make similar use of the piñata for Easter. On Good Friday, villagers displayed a piñata in the form of Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ, and beat the figure until all the candy fell to the ground. Judas was symbolically punished, and the remnants were then burned to completely destroy the traitor. This custom was still alive in small villages in the middle of the 20th century.
The Mexican custom then evolved to an event at Christmas as part of the celebration of the Posadas from December 16th through Christmas Eve. The Posadas are a re-enactment of the Holy Family's struggle to find shelter before the birth of the Holy Child Worshippers go from door to door in a pre-selected neighborhood, where they are turned away time after time until one home finds room for the Holy Family.
At this last house there is a celebration for all, which includes a piñata for the children. The pageant's participants end the custom with the traditional star-shaped piñata on Christmas Eve. Thus the children receive small toys and candy on the nine days before Christmas.
In the last 50 years Mexicans artisans have utilized modern materials, capitalized on tourist demand and have changed the shaped of the piñata to its modern forms and vibrant colors.
The clay pot has been replaced by a papier-mâché form. Safety from broken potshards, as well as ease in construction, has prompted this change. The newspaper skeleton of papier-mâché is covered with fringed tissue or crepe paper in bright, festive colors. Border entrepreneurs have gone beyond the traditional Christmas star form to make burros, superheroes, cartoon characters and countless other shapes.
This booming business supplies witches and jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, turkeys for Thanksgiving, Santas for Christmas and bunnies and eggs for Easter. This reflects the change of tradition.
Instead of being solely a Christmas custom, the piñata is used for any festive occasion, but is especially popular at birthday parties. People in Mexico and all over the United States have adopted the piñata for adult as well as children's parties. One Mexican piñata maker reports she even has orders for X-rated piñatas!
Thus, while the piñata retains little of the religious significance of the Spanish, it still yields its treasures to partygoers of all ages. Some, reluctant to destroy the exquisitely detailed piñatas, use them for decoration, as can be seen in border restaurants and shops.
Detractors of the customs, such as parents concerned that piñata breaking teaches their children to hit a favorite animal or character, should be aware of the early religious significance in the destruction of evil.
Because of their popularity, piñatas have become important to the local economy. A recent article in the El Paso Times reported that the United States imports between 600,000 and 800, 000 piñatas from Júarez annually. One local importer averages 35,000 piñata sales per month. Piñatas now can be found in retail toy shops, and some even have a "made in Taiwan" tag! Reporter Paul Salopek sums it up: "Once a strictly Mexican tradition that rarely penetrated beyond the borderlands, the piñata phenomenon has gone forth, multiplied and conquered the hearts of U. S. youths."