Some Mallorquin families still carry on the long tradition of “Trencar Olles” at birthday parties and other celebrations. An old cooking pot is filled with sweets or coins and paper confetti and is tied up on a rope. Kids wearing a blindfold try to break the pot with a long stick and when they succeed there is a hair raising scrummage among the pottery shards for the prizes. This very old tradition predates the more modern piñata, which although usually thought of as Mexican, has its roots more recently in Europe but originally in China. Who knew?!
Although piñatas these days are just for fun, historians believe that the early Chinese version involved a pottery cow or ox, which was covered in coloured paper and filled with five different types of seeds. It was a new year tradition associated with bringing good weather for the growing season. After being broken to spread the seeds, the pot remains were burnt and the ashes kept for good luck
The tradition came to Europe in the 14th century where it became part of the Christian celebration of Lent. The first Sunday in Lent used to be known in Spain as ‘Piñata Sunday’.
The word piñata comes from the Italian “pignatta” meaning “earthenware cooking pot”. The European piñata tradition was taken to Mexico in the 16th century by the Conquistadores.
Although there was a similar Aztec tradition which commemorated the birthday of Huitzilopochtli. Priests would decorate a clay pot with coloured feathers. When the pot was broken, the contents would fall to the feet of the idol as an offering.
So the next time the piñata appears at another one of those birthday parties, take comfort in the rich cultural history your little one is partaking in. It’s not all sweets and plastic treats, you know.