A 400-Year-Old Mexican Tradition, Pinatas Are Not Child’s Play

ACOLMAN, Mexico — Maria de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarias swiftly cuts hundreds of strips of newsprint and colored crepe paper needed to make a pinata, soothed by Norteno music on the radio while measuring pieces by feel.

“The measurement is already in my fingers,” Ortiz Zacarias says with a laugh.

She has been doing this since she was a child, in the family-run business alongside her late mother, who learned the craft from her father. Pinatas haven’t been displaced by more modern customs, and her family has been making a living off them into its fourth generation.

Ortiz Zacarias calls it “my legacy, handed down by my parents and grandparents.”

Business is steady all year, mainly with birthday parties, but it really picks up around Christmas. That’s because piñatas are interwoven with Christian traditions in Mexico.

There are countless designs these days, based on everything from Disney characters to political figures. But the most traditional style of pinata is a sphere with seven spiky cones, which has a religious origin.

Each cone represents one of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Hitting the papier-mache globe with a stick is a symbolic, with the added advantage of releasing the candy within.

Pinatas weren’t originally filled with candy, nor made mainly of paper. Grandparents in Mexico can remember a time a few decades ago when piñatas were clay pots covered with paper and filled with hunks of sugar cane, fruits and peanuts. The treats were received quite gladly, though falling pieces of the clay pot posed a bit of a hazard.

But the tradition goes back even further. Some say piñatas can be traced back to China, where papermaking originated.

In Mexico, they were apparently brought by the Spanish conquerors, but may also replicate pre-Hispanic traditions.

Spanish chronicler Juan de Grijalva wrote that piñatas were used by Augustine monks in the early 1500s at a convent in the town of Acolman, just north of Mexico City. The monks received written permission from Pope Sixtus V for holding a year-end Mass as part of the celebration of the birth of Christ.

But the Indigenous population already celebrated a holiday around the same time to honor the god of war, Huitzilopochtli. And they used something similar to pinatas in those rites.

The pre-Hispanic rite involved filling clay jars with precious cocoa seeds — the stuff from which chocolate is made — and then ceremonially breaking the jars.

“This was the meeting of two worlds,” said Walther Boelsterly, director of Mexico City’s Museum of Popular Art. “The pinata and the celebration were used as a mechanism to convert the native populations to Catholicism.”

Pinatas are also used in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, mainly at children’s parties.

The pinata hasn’t stood still. Popular figures this year range from Barbie to Spider-Man. Ortiz Zacarias’ family makes some new designs most of the year, but around Christmas they return to the seven-pointed style, because of its longstanding association with the holiday.

The family started their business in Acolman, where Ortiz Zacarias’ mother, Romana Zacarias Camacho, was known as “the queen of the piñatas” before her death.

Ortiz Zacarias’ 18-year-old son, Jairo Alberto Hernandez Ortiz, is the fourth generation to take up the centuries-old craft.

“This is a family tradition that has a lot of sentimental value for me,” he said.

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