The Donkey And The Piñata: The History Behind The Iconic Mexican Totem

The Donkey And The Piñata: The History Behind The Iconic Mexican Totem

By: Hugo Marquez -

Donkey-shaped piñatas have become part of the popular imagination surrounding Mexican culture, but, are they really Mexican?

The origins of piñatas are still unclear. Some historians trace them back to China, during Marco Polo’s time. Others claim that piñatas actually come from pre-Columbian times. However, the question remains: why is it that donkey piñatas have become part of the popular imagination? And, are they really that popular?

Pre-Columbian historians say that piñatas were used by the Aztecs. They were clay pots covered in feathers and filled with tiny ornaments and then cracked during festivities to commemorate the birth of the god of war and the Sun. 


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Other historians claim that piñatas were introduced to Europe after one of the expeditions of Marco Polo to China. There, the Chinese created clay animal sculptures that were filled with seeds to celebrate festivities related to agriculture. It would only take a few years for Europeans to use them during Lent, specially in Italy. Later on, during the colonization of the Americas, missionaries used piñatas as a metaphor about the fight of good versus evil. 

Nowadays, piñatas in Mexico are filled with all sorts of candy and are used mainly to celebrate birthdays or during posadas, a celebration held during the nine days before Christmas. Pointy stars, celebrities, cartoons, and even politicians are popular piñata designs across the country, and both young and old can have a shot at cracking the piñata. But what about all the donkey-shaped piñatas?


As a Mexican born and raised in the south of Mexico, not even once in my life have I ever cracked a donkey-shaped piñata, or even seen one at a market or piñata shop. However, donkey piñatas happen to be very popular in the central and northern areas of Mexico, and these can be found mainly for the celebrations of Our Lady of Guadalupe, right before posadas take place. Now, the donkey shape is related to the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, where the Virgin Mary rode a donkey according to popular culture and Catholic tradition. Ever since, donkeys have had a special meaning for catholics, because these resemble humility. 

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As a result of immigration to the US, it is no wonder that northern Mexican culture is the one that is more popular among people in the US and probably that is why piñatas with the shape of donkeys are so popular in the United States. But trust me, we Mexicans rarely see these over here.