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Piñatas: A staple in Christmas traditions


Those colorful, swinging figures hanging at birthday parties shouldn't be dismissed as kid stuff, especially at this time of year. NPR's Alejandra Marquez Janse reports that in Mexico and in Mexican American communities, pinatas are essential to celebrating Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Spanish).

ALEJANDRA MARQUEZ JANSE, BYLINE: First, you need to know that pinatas for Christmas are constructed months ahead of the holiday season, and they are key for Posadas. Those are parties fueled by music and food and kids breaking pinatas.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

MARQUEZ JANSE: Posadas translates to inns in English. Families and friends drop in on each other to symbolize Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, seeking shelter ahead of Jesus' birth. The festivities run from the 16 to the 24 of December. Walther Boelsterly is director of the Museum of Popular Art in Mexico City. He says while there's no documentation about the origin of pinatas, oral history gives some idea.

WALTHER BOELSTERLY: (Through interpreter) What is said is that pinatas have an Eastern origin, basically Chinese. They used a mud pot where they would put seeds, and it was broken in the best moment of sowing to have good luck in the harvest.

MARQUEZ JANSE: Boelsterly says that idea criss-crossed the globe. Marco Polo brought it to Europe, where the Catholic Church adopted it. And when Spanish missionaries arrived in Mexico, they used pinatas in services ahead of Christmas around the same time that the Aztecs in Mexico celebrated one of their gods.

BOELSTERLY: (Through interpreter) So it's a tradition that, from the 16 of December, when the Posadas are, until practically Christmas, people use pinatas to deck their Posadas and have fun.

MARQUEZ JANSE: The shape of this traditional pinata is significant. It's basically a seven-point star, and each pointed cone represents one of the deadly sins - pride, envy, lust, gluttony, anger, greed and sloth. And the act of breaking the pinata...

BOELSTERLY: (Through interpreter) It's to break with the deadly sins to be able to receive Jesus in a more purified state.

MARQUEZ JANSE: And the way that a pinata is broken - blindfolded - symbolizes faith in Christ. Then, Boelsterly says, all the candies and toys that come out once it's broken reflect generosity.

BOELSTERLY: (Through interpreter) Later on, the protocol of the Posadas and Christmas season started to break, and pinatas started being used like a normal thing.

MARQUEZ JANSE: They made their way into birthday celebrations, bachelor parties and even jokes. Boelsterly even remembers a time when a friend was getting divorced. And...

BOELSTERLY: (Through interpreter) He had a very good relationship with his ex-wife. So they made a party to get divorced, and the way to break the compromise of marriage was breaking a pinata.

MARQUEZ JANSE: As popularity spread and demand grew, the artists who create pinatas found themselves in a bind.

YESENIA PRIETO: My name is Yesenia Prieto. I'm a third-generation pinata maker from Los Angeles, Calif.

MARQUEZ JANSE: Prieto owns Pinata Design Studio. She uses a variety of materials in her pinatas, like cardboard, tissue paper, paints and homemade glue and even wood for bigger installations. Her pinatas average a price of $125, starting at $50. She says a challenge in today's pinata making business is...

PRIETO: 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. So produce, produce, produce, produce, produce.

MARQUEZ JANSE: Because the purpose of a pinata is to destroy it, the artistry is not appreciated, Prieto says. And she wants to change this.

PRIETO: The pinata offers not just something to look at, but it offers an experience. And it's transitory, but everything is. Just because it has a shorter lifespan doesn't mean it's less valuable.

MARQUEZ JANSE: She wants people to not just enjoy the pinata but also remember that it serves as the centerpiece of a celebration, a gathering of family, food and fun. Alejandra Marquez Janse, NPR News.

CORNISH: Producer Olivia Sanchez Correa (ph) contributed to this story from Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.