Few things identify Mexico like the piñata does. Believe it or not, the traditional piñata is a a syncretism between the Orient (via Europe) and indigenous traditions.
The modern Mexican piñata has its origins in the early colonial period, but there are a number of cultures which have similar traditions. Before the arrival of the Spanish, both the Mayans and the Aztecs had rituals in which an old, decorated, pot filled with offerings would be broken for a diety. The Mayan tradition even had those breaking the pot blindfolded.
The European tradition came to the continent from China, and was there associated with Lent, not Christmas. In the very early colonial period, the Spanish would co-opt certain native traditions and give them Christian meanings. The pot offering among the Aztecs was for the god Huitzilopochtli, whose birthday was celebrated in December. It was not difficult to make the shift from an offering for an infant god to an offering for the coming Baby Jesus.
The first record of the now-familiar Mexican tradition is from 1586 at the monastery of Acolman, State of Mexico, an hour or so north of Mexico City. For this reason, this small town, with a wonderfully preserved 16th century structure, is considered the birthplace of the Mexican piñata.
The first piñatas were decorated clay pots, with cardboard cones and crepe paper covering them. The original tradition put seven cones/points on the pot to represent the Seven Deadly Sins and used as an evangelization tool. The person hitting with a stick represents the struggle against evil, the blindfold represented faith and the breaking and falling of the goodies represented the rewards of heaven for defeating evil.
Now with between five and nine points, the traditional piñata has lost its evangelical aspect, and is most commonly seen in December during the Posadas, small neighborhood plays which reenact the search of Mary and Joseph to find lodging in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. Piñatas can still be made with pots (with a particular oblong type favored for the purpose), but almost all piñatas are now made using paper mache (cartonería), which is lighter, cheaper and safer upon breaking. The making and breaking of piñatas is found all other Mexico and in parts of the United States, especially in areas with large Mexican populations.
Piñatas have also become popular for birthdays, in part because the use of paper mache allows for the making of a wide variety of shapes, with cartoon figures being particularly popular among children. But the nine-pointed piñatas of the Posadas, remain the most traditional and the most meaningful.
All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted