A piñata (/pɪnˈjɑːtə/ pin-yah-tə, Spanish pronunciation: [piˈɲata]) is a container often made of papier-mâché, pottery, or cloth; it is decorated, and filled with small toys or candy, or both, and then broken as part of a ceremony or celebration. Piñatas are commonly associated with Mexico. The idea of breaking a container filled with treats came to Europe in the 14th century, where the name, from the Italian pignatta, was introduced. The Spanish brought the European tradition to Mexico, although there were similar traditions inMesoamerica. The Aztecs had a similar tradition to honor the birthday of the godHuitzilopochtli in mid December. According to local records, the Mexican piñata tradition began in the town of Acolman, just north of Mexico City, where piñatas were introduced for catechism purposes as well as to co-opt the Huitzilopochtli ceremony. Today, the piñata is still part of Mexican culture, the cultures of other countries in Latin America, as well as the United States, but it has mostly lost its religious character.

There’s no rulebook on how to make a piñata. Any way you want make one is fine, as long as your partiers can safely break it open to get to the goodies inside.  The instructions I offer here are what works for me, but other piñateros might do things differently and you shouldn’t feel limited by the methods I use — in fact, I’m always experimenting with new techniques myself in order to create new and different piñatas.  In general, however, I most often use balloons and newspapers to make my piñatas, with a papier mâché paste made from flour and water.  I find that approach to be easy and inexpensive, so that’s where we’ll start.

Here’s how I usually make a piñata. If you want more detail about any of the steps below, click on the links to the left.

1) Begin with a picture or sketch of what I want to make.

2) Blow up balloons to the sizes I need and wrap them in newspaper, the tighter the better.  I try to minimize the number and size of the bumps, but they can’t be eliminated altogether.

 

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3) Mix up a batch of papier mâché paste. Dip strips of newspaper into the paste and lay them on the newspaper-wrapped balloons. Allow each layer to dry before applying the next one.  Check out the Working with Papier Mâché page for more details on this step.

 

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Usually 2-3 layers of papier mâché strips is enough if I wrapped the balloon in newspaper before I started. If I didn’t, or if I’m using a large punch ball balloon, I might need to apply 4-5 layers of paper mâché before popping the balloon.

4) Poke a hole in each piece, then pop and remove the balloon.  To close up the hole I’ll usually put on a layer of papier mâché, but sometimes I’ll just cover it with masking tape and then decorate right over the masking tape.

 

5) If I’m making a structured piñata, I’ll assemble different pieces of the piñata using masking tape to hold them together, then apply two or sometimes three layers of papier mâché strips to cement them together, letting each layer dry before the next one is added. I also insert the hanging hook now if that wasn’t done earlier.

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6) If the walls of the piñata ended up too thick, I score them or stab them with a knife to weaken them. Sometimes I’ll reach into the piñata through a hole and remove some layers of dried papier mâché from the inside.

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7) Decorate the piñata when the completed papier mâché sculpture is dry. I often use snipped crepe paper to decorate my piñatas, but you’ll see lots of other other methods used here as well.

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If you’ve never made a piñata before, give it a try! You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to get great results the first time.

Hanging Hook

Hook 10In this case the piñata has an irregular shape, so I didn’t know where to put the hanging hook until the papier mâché work was finished. I wanted the piñata to hang tilting slightly forward. To find the correct spot for the hanging point, I stuck a thin screwdriver into the piñata where I thought the hook should go and lifted it up. Through trial and error I found the spot where the hook should go in order for the piñata to hang the way I wanted it to. (Remember when you do this that the weight of the candy might change the center of gravity of the piñata.) Once I knew where the hook should go, I cut an opening in the side of the piñata and installed the hook from the inside.

 

Again I started with a shirt hanger cut off at the shoulders and a piece of cardboard. It really doesn’t matter what shape the cardboard is, as long as it fits inside the piñata where you need it to go.   You can also just use heavy gauge wire.

 

I poked the hanger through the cardboard and used pliers to bend the extra length around to the top of the cardboard.

 

I cut an X in the piñata using a knife, then folded the flaps back to create an opening. On a lightweight piñata you can cut your opening where the hook will go, but this spider is too big for that.

 

I inserted the hook through the opening and poked it out through the tiny hanging hole that I had made earlier with the screwdriver. I usually use hot glue or duct tape to hold the cardboard in place against the inside of the piñata. I did that here, but I didn’t take a picture of it.

 

Lifting the piñata by the hanging hook ensures that it hangs the way I want it to.

 

I used pliers to curl the straight shirt hanger into a closed loop, then folded the flaps back down.

 

I put a couple pieces of masking tape over the cuts to keep them closed. This is now a weak point in the piñata. You can leave it that way and decorate right over the masking tape to create a major weak spot, or put down another layer or two of papier mâché to toughen it up a bit before decorating. Even if I want a weak spot there I usually put down one layer of papier mâché just to make sure it stays closed.

For another example of installing a hanging hook, click over to the Make a Stegosaurus page.

Don’t forget that in the end, all your hard work hangs by that hook. Don’t take it lightly. Always close off the loop, and make sure the papier mâché surrounding the hook is strong enough to bear the weight of the loaded piñata. If you’re making a thin-walled piñata for young children, make the top of the piñata thicker than the rest. The kids won’t be hitting it on the top and you don’t want the hook to tear through.