In Mexico, piñatas are a Christmas essential full of history, art and treats
From her shop in eastern Mexico City, Tania Hernandez begins making piñatas for the holiday season as early as October.
That's because piñatas are essential to celebrating Christmas in Mexico. Specifically, traditional ones in the form of a seven-point star.
The reason why goes back years, and continents.
The Posadas tradition
Hernandez says her favorite piñata to make is that traditional one.
These colorful figures are a key element in Posadas – which translates to inns – an annual tradition that runs from December 16 to 24 and is fueled by music, food, and a piñata for the children. During Posadas, family, friends and neighbors drop in on each other at night, asking for shelter in representation of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem ahead of Jesus' birth.
Walther Boelsterly, director of the Museum of Popular Art in Mexico City, says that while there's no documentation about the origin of piñatas, oral history gives some idea of where they come from.
"What is said is that piñatas have an Eastern origin, basically Chinese," he says. "They used a mud pot where they put seeds, and it was broken in the best moment of sowing to have good luck in the harvest."
Boelsterly says Marco Polo then brought that idea to Europe, and when Spanish missionaries arrived in Mexico, they used piñatas in services ahead of Christmas. It was around the same time that the Aztecs in Mexico celebrated one of their gods.
"So, it's a tradition that from the 16th of December when the Posadas start, until practically Christmas, the 24th, people use piñatas to deck their Posadas and have fun," Boelsterly says.
The shape of the piñata used in these festivities is significant.
In that seven-point star, each pointed cone represents one of the deadly sins – pride, envy, lust, gluttony, anger, greed and sloth.
And the act of breaking the piñata has meaning, too.
"It's to break with the deadly sins in order to be able to receive Jesus in a more purified state," Boelsterly says.
Then, he adds, all the treats that come out once the piñata is broken reflect generosity.
From Posadas to daily life
Eventually, the tradition of only using piñatas in the Christmas season started to break. They were made in new shapes – like a carrot where the mud pot would sit at the top – and they made their way into birthday celebrations, bachelor parties and more.
"One of my friends had a divorce, and he had a very good relationship with his ex-wife," Boelsterly says. "So, they made a party to get divorced and the way to break the compromise [of marriage] was breaking a piñata."
The traditional mud pot, which would shatter everywhere once it broke, was more often replaced by cardboard, and as cartoons and TV shows became more popular, piñata makers started to use those characters in their products to appeal to children.
Now, Tania Hernandez talks eagerly about her job and is thankful that she learned the skills from her father-in-law.
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, 'Make things as fast as you can because we're not getting paid very much for anything that we're making'," Prieto says. "So, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce."
That's what she learned seeing her family struggle with their business years ago.
"There [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 in return," she says. "So on a good week when selling wholesale, we would get about $60 to $100 a week in terms of pay, working about like eight hours a day."
She recognized the art involved in their work, and wanted others to do it too.
Prieto now owns the custom shop Piñata Design Studio. She uses materials like cardboard, tissue paper and homemade glue, as well as sequins and wood for bigger installations. Her piñatas average about $125, and start at $50.
She says that the artistry of a piñata tends not to be appreciated because its purpose is to be destroyed, and she wants to change this.
The basis of her business is to put time and care in the production process, and Prieto wants people to slow down, too, so they can appreciate the value of the product.
"The piñata offers not just something to look at, but it offers an experience," she says. "It's transitory, but everything is. Just because it has a shorter lifespan doesn't mean it's less valuable."
Recognizing artistry and history
There are some efforts to recognize that artistic value of piñatas.
For 15 years, the Museum of Popular Art that Walther Boelsterly directs in Mexico has held a piñata contest as a way to celebrate the tradition and the talent involved in the process.
Participants have to use traditional materials, like a mud pot and tissue paper for decoration, and compete for a cash prize.
And in L.A., Prieto also recently participated in an exhibit hosted by the nonprofit organization Craft in America. It was titled Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration and ran from September to December 4th.
"One of our goals was really to highlight this as a living craft form," says Emily Zaiden, director and curator at Craft in America. "One of the few that people experience in this day and age – to have an object like a piñata that's so much a part of people's celebrations and memories. And have that be a handcrafted piece of work is really special."
Olivia Sanchez contributed to this report from Mexico.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.