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Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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piñatas, candy-filled papier mâché ephemeral art, are a staple in Mexican fiestas ranging from the traditional Christmas posadas (the nine days preceding Christmas) to birthday parties. Piñatas come in all shapes and sizes and are used in celebrations of all kinds, including secular and religious holidays, bridal showers, and political rallies. These colorful containers have now made their way into mainstream culture, appearing at children’s birthday parties throughout the United States.

From its likely origins in China and subsequent travels through Italy and Spain and finally to Mexico and the United States, the piñata tradition has remained basically the same: a candy-filled container that is broken by a blindfolded player. Marco Polo, on his twelfth-century visit to China, is said to have encountered the custom of breaking a figure of an animal as part of the New Year’s celebration. The tradition eventually spread to Italy and Spain, where it was laden with new meaning: as part of Lenten festivities, the piñata came to symbolize the battle between good and evil. Breaking it open with a decorated stick, participants were rewarded with candies for having vanquished evil and temptation. In Spain, el baile de la piñata, celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent, continued the tradition as blindfolded participants struck a clay pot filled with candy until it broke.