When you mention a Piñata, the first thing you likely think of is a child’s birthday party and kids scrambling like mad to collect the candy the burst from it. But the piñata actually originated with a Catholic tradition tied to the First Sunday of Lent.
In medieval Italy, on the first Sunday of Lent, the rulers of the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies would give gifts to the peasantry as their Lenten almsgiving. Sometimes, these alms were placed in simple cookware known as pignatta, an Italian word meaning “earthenware cooking pot”, and derived from the Latin word pinea, “pine cone” based on their shape. These pots would be broken open and the poor would receive their alms. Thus, the first Sunday of Lent became known as “Pignatta Sunday”.
This tradition eventually spread to Spain, where the word pignatta was assumed to be derived from its resemblance to a pineapple. The Spanish word for pineapple is piña, and they eventually began calling the Italian pignatta by the name piñata, which means little pineapple.
When the Spanish came to the New World, they found a similar tradition among the natives where a pot was decorated with feathers and beaten until the items inside fell out as an offering to the Aztec God of War Huitzilopochtli.
Seeing an opportunity for catechesis, the Spanish Friars started creating piñatas for Christmas, Lent, and Easter celebrations filled with seasonal fruits and seeds. These piñatas, as are today considered the traditional form of a piñata, were seven-pointed and decorated with paper and ribbon.
The seven points represented the Seven Deadly Sins. The pot inside represented evil or the Devil, and the prizes, the temptations of evil. The person would be blindfolded to represent faith, that is, believing without seeing. The person would then be turned around, representing the disorienting effect of sin. They would be turned 33 times to represent the 33 years of Our Lord’s life. They were then given a stick that had been painted white which represented the struggle against temptation and evil. When the piñata broke, the treats inside then represent the rewards of keeping the faith and being freed from evil.
While piñatas have lost most of their religious significance today, traces of its religious origin remain, especially during the traditional Las Posadas of Christmas.