Acolman, a village 40 kilometers from Mexico City, is commonly believed to be the birthplace of Las Posadas, a nine-day string of Christmas festivities celebrated throughout Mexico. In 1587, Friar Diego de Soria—the head of the San Agustin Convent—requested permission from the Vatican to perform nine masses before December 24. In his honor, the town erected a bronze statue of the monk breaking a piñata in the village entrance.
But the true origin of this tradition is older than the Spanish arrival in Mexico. The Aztecs believed that during the winter solstice the god Quetzalcoatl would come down to Earth to visit. In his honor, they performed human sacrifices and offerings. At the same time, the Aztecs also celebrated the god Huitzilopochtli throughout the month of December.
Because these festivities began on December 6 and ended on December 26, the Spanish missionaries chose those same days for Las Posadas, both to take advantage of pre-Hispanic customs and instill their evangelical spirit into the indigenous people an evangelical spirit. They gave the Aztec rites a Christian feel—without removing any hearts.
"We do our best to preserve traditions in this country, especially in this town," says Guadalupe Ramirez, a woman I meet in Acolman. She does not stop looking at me while I photograph the procession (posada) that goes down the street. Fifteen people accompany a donkey led by an older man; riding the animal is a little girl dressed as the Virgin Mary.
I tell Ramirez that I came to this town looking for the essence of the posadas and piñatas. "In the capital, it is hard to find a place where posadas are observed," I tell her.
"If you go to popular neighborhoods, you'll find something," she says. Take note.
The group of people stops at some houses and recites the letanías, or requests for the posada. It is the dramatization of the journey that Joseph and Mary took to get to Bethlehem, seeking accommodation along the road every night. Arriving at the convent, the people knock at the large wooden door. The priest opens and gives a sermon to the children, who anxiously await the moment when they can break the piñata—the climax of the night. It is said that the piñata represents the devil, and because children have pure souls they are the only ones who can confront him.
There is little question that piñatas were first created in China. Marco Polo may have been the one to take them to Italy. From there, they came to Spain and then finally on the colonists ships to our lands.
Piñatas were important for Las Posadas due to their similarity to one of the rites that the Aztec children observed, which involved collecting clay pots filled with seeds and painted with colorful feathers. Those who succeed in breaking the pot, which their parents had hung somewhere in their homes, would get the loot inside.
With the arrival of the Spanish, Christian friars craftily repurposed this ancient tradition in order to evangelize, injecting guilt and sin into indigenous observances. They created a clay pot decorated with brightly colored papers representing Satan; they added seven points, which symbolize the seven deadly sins, while the shape represents the star of Bethlehem. They were filled with fruits and candies, symbols of wealth of the kingdom of heaven. The blindfold symbolized blind faith and the will to overcome it, while the posadas begin nine days before the birth of Jesus, representing each month of the Virgin Mary´s pregnancy.
In Acolman, I watch the priest end the sermon. The children form two lines—one for the boys and one for the girls. He gives them each a bag called colaciones, with fruit, candies, and biscuits. They go outside and everyone starts yelling. "I don´t want gold or silver! What I want is to break the piñata!"
Outside, it´s nearly dark. A man hangs the first piñata of the night from a tree— there will be three more. He passes the stick around to different children. Whoever's turn others shout "Dale, dale, dale, don´t lose your aim, because if you lose it, you lose your way. You hit it once, you hit it twice, you hit it three times, and your time is up!"
The biggest kids destroy the piñata. All the children fall to the floor to pick up the contents: candies, tangerines, tecojotes, sugarcane, oranges, piñateras, jicama, peanuts, all mixed with toys and cookies. And the whole rite will repeat again for the next eight nights.
In Mexico, piñatas adorn the houses, streets, shops, and public spaces of any city or town in the country—always with faith to preserve the tradition. They will beat the devil and they will deal with their sins, which reappear to temp them once again the next year.
Additional translation and reporting by Jess Winteringham. This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.