Similar traditions were already found in the Aztec and Mayan populations where clay pots filled with goodies were broken open with clubs. 


Diego Rivera’s The Piñata


Contemporary interpretations of the Piñata by Las Vegas-based artist, Justin Favela


Evolution of the Piñata


THERE IS SOME DEBATE but it appears that the origin of the Piñata is not Spanish but Chinese. Italian explorer Marco Polo recounted seeing in his travels a ritual in which the figure of an ox filled with seeds was broken open with sticks to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The Chinese version was in the shape of a cow or ox and used for the New Year. It was decorated with symbols and colors meant to produce a favorable climate for the coming growing season. It was filled with five types of seeds and then hit with sticks of various colors. After the piñata was broken, the remains were burned and the ashes kept for good luck. The tradition arrived in Europe in the 14th century where it was associated with the Christian celebration of Lent; in Spain, the first Sunday of Lent, Piñata Sunday, became a celebration known as the Dance of the Piñata. As the word's Italian origin indicates, pignatta meaning "earthenware cooking pot," the Spanish initially used a plain clay container, before starting to decorate it with ribbons, tinsel and colored paper. The origin of the Italian word is thought to be linked to the Latin word pinea, "pine cone."    

Mesoamerica: Huitzilopochtli to las posadas

The European piñata tradition was brought to Mexico in the 16th century; however, there was a similar tradition in Mesoamerica already. The Mayan tradition was similar to the modern piñata tradition, including blindfolding the participant hitting the piñata. The Aztec tradition commemorated the birthday of Huitzilopochtli. Priests would decorate a clay pot with colorful feathers. When the pot was broken with a stick or club, the treasures inside would fall to the feet of the idol as an offering. According to local records, the piñata was first used for the purposes of evangelism in 1586, in Acolman, in the modern State of Mexico, just north of Mexico City. The Augustinian monks there modified European piñatas and created the Las Posadas tradition to co-opt the celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, which was celebrated in mid December.

Seven Deadly Sins

The Mexican Catholic interpretation of the piñata rested on the struggle of man against temptation. The seven points represent the seven deadly sins. However, since this time the piñata has all but lost its religious significance and has become popular in many types of celebrations, not just during December's Las Posadas. The clay pot has been replaced with a papier-mâché container. Today, outside of Mexico and latino communities in the United States, similar traditions are celebrated in Denmark, Catalonia, Italy, Japan, Philipines, Vietnam, and India.