Cinco de Mayo: Where Did The Piñata Originate?

Many brightly colored pinatas, no doubt, will be strung up to be whacked this Cinco de Mayo.

This Mexican tradition has been part of the culture for hundreds of years and was brought to the New World by the Spanish. But who brought pinatas to Spain?

Though the Spanish origin of pinatas is largely undisputed among historians, some evidence also points to China as the original root of the pinata custom. And the tradition may have made a stop in Italy on the way from China to Spain.

At least as far back as the 13th century, the Chinese had a game whereby large paper dolls in animal shapes were stuffed with seeds and then smashed to bits by partygoers, according to the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. The paper remnants were then burned and the ashes kept for good luck.

Explorer Marco Polo saw this game during his travels to China and brought the idea back to Italy, where the object was called a pignatta – or "little pot" – and became popular with the Renaissance nobility. Instead of paper and seeds, small clay vessels were filled with trinkets and other pricier gifts, then batted at during pre-Lenten celebrations. Larger, colorful pignattas filled with candies were hung in town squares and smashed open for children during the carnival festivities.

The route from Italy to Spain brought small changes to the custom, which then made its way across the Atlantic with Spanish missionaries.

In Mexico, the Spanish pinatas were used as a tool of religious conversion, as the hanging pot was meant to represent sin, and those who destroyed it represented good vanquishing evil. Pinatas were readily accepted in Mexico because a similar Aztec ceremony honoring Huitzilopotchli, the god of war, already existed there.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.