In Mexico, piñatas are a Christmas essential full of history, art and treats

A woman prepares traditional Mexican piñatas for sale at a market in Acolman, Mexico state, in 2017.

A woman prepares traditional Mexican piñatas for sale at a market in Acolman, Mexico state, in 2017.

Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP via Getty Images

From her store in eastern Mexico City, Tania Hernandez starts making piñatas for the holiday season as early as October.

This is because piñatas are essential for celebrating Christmas in Mexico. Specifically, the traditional ones in the form of a seven-pointed star.

The reason that dates back years and continents.

The tradition of the Posadas

Hernandez says his favorite piñata to make is the traditional one.

These colorful figures are a key part of Posadas – which translates into inns – an annual tradition that runs from December 16 to 24 and is fueled by music, food and a piñata for the kids. While Posadas, family, friends and neighbors cross paths at night, asking for shelter as a representation of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem before Jesus was born.

Participants stand in the historic Avila Adobe home, the oldest residence in Los Angeles, as they prepare to parade in the annual Las Posadas procession on Olvera Street on December 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California .

Participants stand in the historic Avila Adobe home, the oldest residence in Los Angeles, as they prepare to parade in the annual Las Posadas procession on Olvera Street on December 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California .

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Walther Boelsterly, director of the Museum of Folk Art in Mexico City, says that although there is no documentation on the origin of piñatas, oral history gives some idea of ​​their origin.

“What is being said is that the piñatas have an oriental, mainly Chinese origin,” he says. “They used a mud pot where they put seeds, and it was broken at the best time of sowing to be lucky in the harvest.”

Boelsterly says Marco Polo then brought this idea to Europe, and when Spanish missionaries arrived in Mexico, they used piñatas in pre-Christmas services. It was around the same time that the Aztecs in Mexico celebrated one of their gods.

“So it is a tradition that from December 16 when the Posadas start, until practically Christmas, the 24th, people use piñatas to decorate their Posadas and have fun, ”says Boelsterly.

The shape of the piñata used during these festivities is significant.

In this seven-pointed star, each sharp cone represents one of the deadly sins – pride, envy, lust, gluttony, anger, greed, and laziness.

"History and origin of a tradition" (History and Origin of a Tradition) by Felix Emmanuel Romero Rojas presents a traditional seven-pointed star pinata with the history of the origin of this The piece won an honorary mention in the competition of the Museum of the popular pinata this year .

“Historia y origen de una tradición” (History and origin of a tradition) by Felix Emmanuel Romero Rojas presents a traditional seven-pointed star pinata with the history of the origin of this piece. The piece won an honorary mention in the Popular Pinata Museum competition this year.

Museo de Arte Popular (MAP) / Museum of Popular Art

And breaking the piñata also makes sense.

“It’s breaking with deadly sins so that you can receive Jesus in a more purified state,” says Boelsterly.

Then, he adds, all the goodies that come out after the piñata is broken reflect bounty.

From Posadas to everyday life

Eventually, the tradition of using only piñatas during the Christmas season began to break down. They were made in new shapes – like a carrot where the mud pot would sit atop – and they’ve found their way into birthday celebrations, bachelor parties and more.

“A friend of mine got divorced and he had a great relationship with his ex-wife,” Boelsterly said. “So they had a party for a divorce and a way to break the compromise [of marriage] broke a piñata. “

The traditional mud pot, which shattered everywhere when broken, was more often replaced with cardboard, and as cartoons and TV shows became more popular, piñata makers began to use these characters. in their products to appeal to children.

Now Tania Hernandez speaks enthusiastically about her job and is grateful that she learned the skills from her stepfather.

But, as popularity and demand grew, some artists who create piñatas have found themselves in a bind – like Yesenia Prieto, a third-generation piñata maker in Los Angeles.

“The name of the game is, ‘Get it done as fast as possible because we don’t get paid very much for everything we make,” said Prieto. “So, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce.”

Yesenia Prieto, owner of Pinata Design Studio in LA, is working on a custom piñata.

Yesenia Prieto, owner of Pinata Design Studio in LA, is working on a custom piñata.

Mia Baez / Pinata Design Studio

That’s what she learned seeing her family struggling with their business years ago.

“The [would] be a team of about four people working on one piece. It took about two hours to create and you would only get about $ 10 back, “she says.” So in a good wholesale week, we would get about $ 60 to $ 100 per week. in terms of salary, working about eight hours. one day.”

She recognized the art involved in their work and wanted others to do it too.

Prieto now owns the Piñata Design Studio custom store. She uses materials like cardboard, tissue paper, and homemade glue, as well as glitter and wood for larger installations. His piñatas cost an average of $ 125 and start at $ 50.

She says the art of a piñata tends to not be appreciated because its purpose is to be destroyed, and she wants to change that.

The basis of his business is to devote time and attention to the production process, and Prieto wants people to slow down as well, so that they can appreciate the value of the product.

“The piñata not only offers something to watch, but it offers an experience,” she says. “It’s transient, but everything is. Just because it has a shorter lifespan doesn’t mean it’s less valuable.”

Recognize art and history

There are efforts to recognize this artistic value of piñatas.

For 15 years, the Museum of Folk Art that Walther Boelsterly runs in Mexico has been holding a piñata competition to celebrate the tradition and talent involved in the process.

The pinata 'Alebrijes, Tonas y Nahuales' won first place in the pinata competition organized by the Museum of Folk Art of Mexico City.  By René Bautista Lemus.

The pinata ‘Alebrijes, Tonas y Nahuales’ won first place in the pinata competition organized by the Museum of Folk Art of Mexico City. By René Bautista Lemus.

Museo de Arte Popular (MAP) / Museum of Popular Art

Participants must use traditional materials, such as a mud pot and tissue paper for decoration, and compete for a cash prize.

And in LA, Prieto also recently participated in an exhibition hosted by the non-profit organization Craft in America. It was titled Piñatas: the great art of celebration and ran from September to December 4.

“One of our goals was really to showcase this form of living craftsmanship,” says Emily Zaiden, director and curator of Craft in America. “One of the few that people experience these days – having an object like a piñata that is so much a part of people’s celebrations and memories. And that it is handcrafted work is really special. “

Olivia Sanchez contributed to this report from Mexico.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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