Piñatas are traditional elements of the Mexican culture, now popularized across the United States and other countries. Piñatas are part of celebrations and make perfect gifts for all occassions. Learn about piñata basics in this article.
Mexican piñata tradition
Most people know piñatas as a brightly decorated hollow animal or object covered with tissue paper. The empty cavity is most often filled with candy, party favors, or small trinkets that fit into a theme, broken open while a person is blindfolded and swinging a bat.
Piñatas originated in Mexico. To be more specific, piñatas are essential to celebrating Christmas in Mexico, according to National Pubic Radio (NPR). This timeframe correlates with the tradition of element in Posadas, when “family, friends and neighbors drop in on each other at night, asking for shelter in representation of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem ahead of Jesus’ birth.”
A very special piñata is used during the Posadas event: a seven-pointed star, “each pointed cone represents one of the deadly sins – pride, envy, lust, gluttony, anger, greed and sloth.” If you’re looking for a Posada piñata, it will be the 7-starred one.
To quote the NPR article again, breaking the piñata symbolizes breaking “with the deadly sins in order to be able to receive Jesus in a more purified state.” The piñata treats inside represent generosity.
The rise of the cartoon piñata and other piñata shapes
Today, piñatas have expanded past decorated animals (the familiar donkey) and traditional stars, to now popular pop culture icons like favorite cartoons, movies, games, and TV stars and objects.
In fact, the currently most searched for piñata shape is “baby shark piñata” followed by “dinosaur piñata” and “halloween piñata” and “spiderman piñata.”
Since piñatas are very popular for youngster’s birthdays, it’s expected that “paw patrol piñata” “mermaid piñata” “pokemon piñata” and “spongebob piñata” are favorite requests.
Piñatas have become a cultural marketing phenomon in the United States. They can be any size or shape. I’ve dedicated an entire article to piñata gifts for adults that explores piñatas from a different perspective, including custom piñatas.
How to make a piñata
Piñatas are a great project for crafters to make. I remember a favorite school memory was pasting newspaper strips over an inflated balloon with a paste of water and flour. The basic premise of making your own piñata follows that.
The piñata starts with a shape. Some people can build piñatas into complicated characters by configuring cardboard together. Many beginners start with an inflated balloon, and apply wet tissue paper or newspaper strips dipped in paste over this. It makes for a great kids and family activity! Check out the photo below where it appears the man on the right is covering a balloon shape.
You can buy blank cardboard shapes and start the process of piñata making from there. Paper mâché strips are the coverage of choice for decorating the outside of a piñata shape. This colorful tissue paper is easily torn, cheap, thin, and can be applied in layers.
Homemade piñata paste/recipe
Either way, the act of gluing requires a paste. On her blog “Mom Always Finds Out” (love that name!) Nicole provides her how-to version of piñata paste with flour. It’s not intimidating to make at all and is how I made it as a kid. Just basically 5 parts of water for every 1 part flour, some salt, and some boiling over a stove, you can do it!
Shari’s Berries goes for 1 cup water to 1 cup of paste, which seems pretty thick. With any flour piñata paste recipe, you have to really whisk that flour in so there are no lumps, fyi! Shari gives a nice photo tutorial with a more advanced donut shape.
Alternatively, just use watered-down glue. This can be wood glue, Elmer’s glue, or some popular craft glue like Mod Podge. Just like flour paste, you will get a feel for how much you can safely dilute it.
After that, just dip the paper strips in the paste concoction and then apply over the piñata shape. Some people like to use a paint brush to make sure all pieces are evenly coated. It’s best to work one layer at a time, working from one side to another and slightly overlapping the paper strips.
Just note that if you build up too many layers, it can be hard to bust the piñata open. At the same time, you don’t want your piñata to be too flimsy.
Special note: don’t forget to leave an opening to fill the piñata with treats!
How to fill piñata
Whether you buy a piñata or make your own, filling a piñata is an important step. Purchased piñatas will have an opening usually on the back or side. It could be on the bottom, but it’s much easier to make sure the candy and treats stay in with a side opening.
The opening is usually hidden. If you don’t see it, gently brush the paper mâché strips aside and you will certainly find it. The crafty creator will make a little trap door to cover it, it may even have a makeshift latch to securely close it. In the picture below, the opening happens to be circular, but it can be square or rectangle.
What to fill a piñata
The picture above shows the typical piñata filler: cheap candy. Just like assorted bags of Halloween candy, piñata candy can be bought in big bags. Usually, the bag size is for an average piñata. It’s best to evaluate the number of guests to estimate the amount of candy you need to buy.
For piñata filler ideas for adults, visit Piñata Gift Ideas for Adults.
Of course, my vote would be for lots of chocolate candy, but that can get expensive. When you start looking at quantities, many piñata filler ideas can add up to an expensive buy. A good strategy is to get a bag of cheap piñata candy, and stretch it by adding some novelty non-candy fillers:
- hair clips, bows, and goodies young girls may like
- mini stampers
- plastic animals or bugs
- small toy trucks and cars
- stickers, temporary tattoes
- fun notes, jokes, comics
- party favors like noisemakers, glow in the dark sticks, funny glasses, cheap jewelery etc.
- small mini tubs of Play-Dough or silly putty
- small healthy snack packs, nuts
- cheese sticks, meat sticks
- trading cards
- fun “pull” stretchy animals, like flamingos, or jumpy frogs
- mini “build” packs like legos
- popular character statues
- mini craft kits
- magic eraser pads
- bouncy balls
- mini games or mini toys
- money, especially coins
Hit the piñata game
In the traditional piñata game, the user is blindfolded and swings a bat. Let’s talk about the gear for a moment.
Some kids may shy away from being blindfolded. There’s no hard and fast rule that the participant needs to be blindfolded. Of course, it makes hitting the piñata more challenging.
A blindfold could be a kitchen towel (a flour sack towel works best and when laid out horizontally, fits most people. Bandanas are popular, and sleep masks are a good bet, too.
The bat itself probably should not be a real baseball bat. Especially for little kids, you have to be safety-conscious of an accidental swinging injury. It sort of depends on the piñata, because many of them are built of tough cardboard that is difficult to break through.
Some pro moms recommend wiffle bats – a plastic bat for kids ball. I’ve seen some people grab bad mitton rackets, oversize utensils, brooms, etc. These will all work in a pinch.
The piñata games I have experienced involve blindfolding the user, and then rotating them three times. This seems to offer a bit of disorientation. The fun can be taken to the next level if the piñata is on a rope that can be pulled up or down (much to the dismay of the swinging and blindfolded user!).
Every child gets a turn. Rules are relaxed, small children may be given more chances and a stationary piñata. Everyone should be having a fun time and feel included in the piñata game.
We’ve all seen the funny videos where someone get clobbered by a piñata. Blindfolding someone and giving them a big stick in a crowd of people is asking for trouble! Here are some things you can do to make sure your piñata game is a safe one:
- Have one adult direct the game. Explain the rules and make sure there is a safety phrase, like “stick down!” to make sure swinging has stopped.
- The adult in charge may want to wear protection (if you are a male and have been involved in a piñata accident before, you may want to protect those “family jewels!”).
- Have the crowd on one side, so another adult can keep a sharp eye on kids and adults who venture into the swinging zone.
- Make sure the piñata is not too heavily loaded with candy and it is securely tied.
- Try to hang the piñata in an open area, preferably outside. In indoors, stay away from close objects.
- Put the stick away after the game so kids won’t play with it.
Regarding the last safety tip, kids often want the fun to keep going after the piñata is broken open. Kids are resourceful and will recreate the game or use the stick for other made-up games. Before you know it, there is a post-piñata game injury.
How to hang a piñata
Excited party hosts buy a piñata, but may not think of how they are going to hang it. This leads to last minute improvisations.
Serious piñata lovers may want to buy a frame to hang a piñata stand, hanger, etc. I am not locating any stand you can buy (nothing on Amazon or Etsy). This leads me to thinking that there is not a market for it, or it maybe has a safety lawsuit tied to it. Below is a YouTube video showcasing the “Jak Stand” piñata hanger, but it doesn’t seem to be a company that is in business.
Hanging a piñata outdoors
A tree limb is the preferred method of hanging a piñata from a rope. How many people have perfect tree limbs in their back yard? Here are some options if you need to hang a piñata without a tree:
- a freestanding basketball hoop
- swing set
- tall garden or shepherd hooks
- a piñata stand specially made to hang a piñata
- under an outside structure, like a gazebo
- secure a horizontal rope between two points and hang the piñata from the middle
Hanging a piñata indoors
Plenty of people opt to hang their piñata indoors. This could be due to weather or lack of a back yard. Ideally, you would have a generous-sized room for this. Let’s look at your options for hanging a piñata indoors:
- choose a small event center that has higher ceilings.
- hang from inside of a garage, using rafters that are higher or another outside building
- suspend a horizontal rope between two points and hang the piñata from the rope
- use a piñata stand indoors if you have tall enough ceilings
- use a mini-piñata or smaller-sized piñata indoors
- better yet, use a pull-string piñata, no swinging stick needed!
I would discourage hanging a piñata from a light fixture. Damage could occur to the light.
Popular piñata variations
Piñatas are not just piñatas. Many creative people have taken piñatas to the next level, which has caused some confusion. Below are some of the piñata variations currently popular.
Pull string piñata
Pull string piñatas are constructed to open without hitting the piñata. These are considered safer versions of opening the piñata, especially for indoor use. I think all of us have seen the humorous but painful videos of people and kids getting accidentally hurt by a blindfolded wacking person.
The cool thing about pull string piñatas are that you can preserve the piñata as a keepsake. Some of them have hours of work put into them and can be very expensive (especially custom-made piñatas).
Pull string piñatas work by pulling ribbons. No one knows which ribbon is the magic one to open the trap door at the bottom of the piñata. Everyone can pull a ribbon at the same time, or the suspense can build, pulling a ribbon one person at a time.
Either way, the candy and goodies still spill out, much to the delight of guests. As one company described it, “they are a gentle way of opening the piñata.” Pull string piñatas work best for indoor events, birthday parties of small infants and toddlers, and weddings.
Traditional piñatas are often big and awkward. Some marketing guru realized the value in mini piñatas. There is even a company that will mail ou personalized messages along with a mini piñata that you select. It’s easy to do yourself, as mini piñatas are available where traditional piñatas are sold (even Walmart is in on it!).
In the article piñata gifts for adults I review a great over-the-hill kit to send out that includes a mini-piñata.
This section took on a life of it’s own. I’ve dedicated an entire article to this fun and trendy “cake” that’s not just for birthdays!
Piñatas are great fun! Most people think of them as a birthday “feature” but I think differently. Why not make them a gift? It could be a tradition that grandma and grandpa start. Think of giving the gift of FUN! Even a hard-to-buy for teenager could light up when receiving a piñata as a gift!