I once learned the essentials of making a piñata. Layers of wet, gluey newspaper mâché, strategic clips in strips of wrapping tissue, metallic gift wrapping over stiff, fixed cones, and the indispensable hole to the hollow inside, ready for handfuls of sweets. It was experience enough to know that the craft borders closely on art. The result was a star-burst of silver and purple and white, perfect for the birthday when a lucky little one would beat it open with his stick. It was the first and last time a piñata left my amateurish hands; I'm happy to let more experienced ones do the work to better result.
And many of those hands belong to folks who live along stretches of Cuautitlán's roads, which we drove over on the way to Tenopalco for a nephew's cowboy-themed birthday party, the smiting of two piñatas and all. The first was a perfect rendition of Toy Story's Woody, losing his legs and a good deal of his figure before exploding in a candy shower over the roil of kids. It took a good twenty turns for Woody to come to pieces, partly due to a brother-in-law's moving the string around in a frenzy, and in spite of the home run hits that a few of the older ones let fly. And the crowd sung out a vocal version of an hour glass, limiting everyone's turn to the words, "Dale, dale, dale. No pierdas el tino, porque si lo pierdes, pierdes el camino. Ya le diste uno, ya le diste dos, ya le diste tres y ¡su tiempo se acabó!" ("Hit it, hit it, hit it (or Go, go, go). Don't lose your aim, because if you lose it, you'll lose your way. Now you've hit it once, now you've hit it twice, now you've hit three times and your time is up!")
The second piñata was of a more traditional bent, like the Cuautitlán beauty pictured below, boasting seven shiny points that symbolize the seven deadly sins. Brought to Mexico by the proselytizing Spanish (via a Chinese-inspired Italian tradition, according to some), it is also said that their use stemmed from an existing Mayan game of blindfolding players who would swing a stick at a chocolate-filled clay pot hanging from a string. Evangelistic efforts capitalized on the tradition, adding their own signature to the style. Conventionally made of a terra cotta pot and covered in vibrantly-colored paper, that basic cast served as Satan's symbol, of the loveliness temptation often acquires. The seven conical points are those seven cardinal sins, soon broken by the symbolic virtue of the stick, held in the hand of the blindfolded party, a "blind faith" leading her on. When the evil is broken, the symbol of God's love rains out, this time in the form of fruit or sweet confections. I doubt many people give much thought to all that symbolism nowadays, at least not at a precocious four-year-old's big bash of a birthday party.
But perhaps some do during a posada, one of the evening celebrations that take place between December 16 and Christmas. A reenactment of Mary and Joseph's search for a place to stay in Bethlehem, it often involves moving from house to house in an antiphonal chorus to pedir posada, or ask for an inn in which to stay. Still organized among neighbors in many parts, it can now also be a strictly friend or family affair. This Friday, we'll be going to one that seems a mix of the two, at cousin Blanca's house in an eastern suburb, where we'll sing to a few neighbors along the length of their street. Returning to her place, we'll be invited in, finally being granted our posada, or place to stay. Copious amounts of food will be served, along with that all-important piñata.
Las Posadas and Christmas were the piñata's original setting, and though the religious sense may be lost or irrelevant to many, the centuries of it's tradition still weigh in with a heavy and binding distinction, like those thick, wet layers of sticky paper mâché.