Mexico Life
a birthday party piñata on Isla Mujueres Dale, dale, dale: a birthday party piñata on Isla Mujueres. lynda lock

Piñatas up fun factor at a family fiesta

Bashing the figures until the treats fall out is an important part of many celebrations

“Batter up!” Oh wait; wrong culture. “Dale! Dale! Dale! Come on! Hit it. Hit it.”

Taking a careful and considered aim with the brightly decorated stick, the youngster swung hard at the piñata. Thud! It sailed into the air, dented, but intact. A family friend manipulated a rope and pulley system tethering the piñata, his experienced hands jiggling it, pulling it higher, dropping it back down, taunting and teasing.

With giggles and shrieks of laughter a couple of dozen small but very enthusiastic hitters took turns bashing at not just one, but two piñatas. Bashing until the candy showered onto the ground, then diving into the pile to scoop up a share of the booty. It was a hilarious sight.

Most of the parents of the various youngsters were also at the party. When we were elementary school age, we don’t remember our parents attending any festivities involving shrieking, over-sugared children.

They were wisely at work, or busy with chores, or doing something really important. Any excuse would do. Here in Mexico parties are a festive family affair.

Colorful piñatas in fanciful shapes are the centerpieces of birthdays and other celebrations in Mexico and most of Latin America. The idea is thought to have originated in China, but many countries such as India, the Philippines, Japan and even Denmark have similar customs.

In the 13th century the famous explorer-traveler Marco Polo recorded the Chinese custom of covering pottery figures of cows or buffaloes with pretty papers and decorations. During the New Year’s festivities the figures were struck with sticks, and good luck seeds spilled on the ground.

Over the centuries the shapes of the containers and the rules for hitting the piñata have changed dramatically.

Europeans eventually linked the piñata with Lenten celebrations. The first Sunday of Lent became Piñata Sunday, derived from the Italian word pignatta, meaning fragile pot. Traditional piñatas were originally made from a clay pot called la olla and stuffed with treats, or fruits. The Lenten celebration slowly transformed into a fiesta, the Dance of the Piñata.

At the beginning of the 16th century the Spanish missionaries brought their piñata traditions with them to the new world. However, the Aztec priests already had a similar custom to honor the god of war, Huitzilopochtli.

They placed a clay pot adorned with colorful feathers and filled with tiny treasures on a pole in the temple. When broken with a stick or club, the treasures fell to the feet of the god’s image as an offering. Much later, the playful Mayans changed the piñata ceremony to a game where blindfolded players hit a clay pot suspended by string.

At the local parties that we have attended no one was blindfolded, and the piñata was manipulated with a rope and pulley, making it more difficult for the older children and easier for the really little ones. As each person took a turn, the party guests sang a short song. When the song was finished so was the hitter’s turn until everyone had a chance to bash the piñata.

The turns were repeated until someone broke open the cavity containing the treats, spilling them on the ground.

The laughter and giggles of the players made the day. Piñatas are a great way to up the fun factor at a family gathering.

Here’s one version of the piñata song:

Dale, dale, dale,
no pierdas el tino;
Porque si lo pierdes
pierdes el camino.
Ya le diste una,
ya le diste dos;
Ya le diste tres,
y tu tiempo se acabó.

Hit it, hit it, hit it (or “go, go, go”)
don’t lose your aim
because if you lose it
you will lose the path.
You’ve already hit it once
you’ve already hit it twice
you’ve already hit it three times
and your time is over.

The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for nearly 10 years. You can read their blog here.

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