Arts·Art 101

Art 101: Where do piñatas come from? It's complicated

Depending on who you ask, the answer could be a lot of different places.

Depending on who you ask, the answer could be lot of different places

This is Art 101 (not really a class) and I'm Professor Lise (not really a professor). I'll be bringing you stories of art that explains the boring parts, the controversial parts and just the parts you don't understand.

Piñatas: the hollow containers that are usually filled with candy, hung from the ceiling and obliterated by your drunk uncle at your sixth birthday party.

Watch the video:

Art 101: Where do Piñatas come from?

4 years ago
Duration 2:11
This week, Professor Lise takes us through the global history of the piñata's global history.

We most often associate them with Mexico. Piñata literally means "jug" or "pot" and it's always been a way of smashing stuff to celebrate and make it rain with candy.

But depending on who you ask, the piñata comes from a lot of different places. One theory sees their history start in China, where the pots were made in animal shapes, filled with seeds and hit with sticks. But you wouldn't go home with candy — what was left of the container would be burned and the ashes were a symbol of good luck.

It may be that Marco Polo brought the tradition to Italy in the 13th century, where the form was called a pignatta, which may translate to "pine cone" — probably from the aforementioned seed thing.

From there it went to Spain, where the pignatta would be used to celebrate Lent. And then it came to Mexico and the rest of the Americas, where missionaries would use it to lure Indigenous people to convert to Catholicism.

And there are more theories: that the piñata already was in use by the Aztecs — that they'd fill a jar with stuff, decorate it and smash it to celebrate the god of war.

There's a story about the Mayans using it too. But in Mexico, the piñata has stayed the course and gets broken when people are celebrating the days before Christmas and at birthday parties. Aaaand it's also stuck around in Denmark, Italy, Catalonia, India, Japan and the Philippines (and that's not even necessarily a complete list).

Thanks for joining me on this edition of Art 101. I'm Professor Lise and you'll see me again to explain mysteries, boring terms and controversies from the world of art.

See you next time for more Art 101.


Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.