The hit of the party
Piñata breaking may be the perfect party game. It's like a cross between pin the tail on the donkey, stick ball, and trick-or-treat. A papier-mâché figure full of candy (the piñata) is strung on a rope and swung around while blindfolded children try to hit it with a stick. When it breaks, candy pours out and the partygoers scoop it up. Understandably, piñatas are a popular feature of children’s' birthday parties and other festivities--especially around holidays.
You can buy a piñata from a Latino or party supply store in your town, but it's easy (if a little messy) to make your own. Besides, kids tend to enjoy making piñatas as well as breaking them. We'll give you the basics and a recipe for the popular star-shaped piñata.
The first piñatas were undecorated clay pots. People eventually began decorating them, and now most piñatas are made of papier-mâché that's painted or decorated with tissue paper and streamers. Among commercially manufactured piñatas, cartoon character shapes are very common. When you're making your own, though, only imagination and ingenuity limit how you can shape and decorate it.
Few people know that piñatas originated in Italy (the Italian "pignatta" means "fragile pot") before the tradition moved to Spain. In Catholic Spain, the beautiful pot represented the devil, and the goodies inside it were his temptations. Smashing the pot meant the devil was defeated and the spoils could be gathered by the righteous.
Interestingly, when the Spanish brought piñatas to Mexico, they found that the Aztecs already had a similar practice of breaking a decorated clay pot full of small treasures as an offering to their god of war.
Lesson Step 1 : Make the body
The body of a piñata consists of a hollow ball made by layering papier-mâché over an inflated balloon. Start by spreading some newspaper or an old sheet or drop cloth over the area where you'll be working, as papier-mâché can get messy (especially when children are involved).
Prepare the papier-mâché - In your big bowl or bucket, mix one and a half parts water to one part flour (start with about 2 cups, or 240 millilitres, of water). Mix thoroughly to make a thin liquid paste with no lumps. Cut or tear three or four full sheets of newspaper into strips about 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) wide and 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) long.
Blow it up - Inflate a round balloon to about 12 inches (30 centimeters) in diameter and tie it closed. Set the balloon atop the rim of a bowl or cup that's smaller than the diameter of the balloon. This will hold it steady while you work on it, and will keep both your hands free. Place it in the middle of your work area.
Make a mess - Dip a newspaper strip into the paste until it's thoroughly wet. Scrape the excess off between your first and middle fingers as you remove it from the paste. Lay it on the balloon's surface and smooth it down. Dip, scrape, and place more strips across the balloon, rotating it in the bowl until the whole surface is covered. Leave an area about 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) in diameter (and slightly larger than your metal jar lid) around the tied end of the balloon free of papier-mâché. This will be plugged after the piñata is filled.
Dry and repeat - When the whole balloon is covered (except for the small area you've left around the tied end), let it dry. Turn it every now and then so the part resting inside the cup or bowl gets dry, too. This should take about 8 to 10 hours. When it's dry, cover it two to five more times, so there are three to six layers of papier-mâché on it. Use fewer layers if young children will be breaking it, more if it's for bigger kids or adults. Always leave the tied end of the balloon uncovered, and let each layer dry before you add a new one.
Lesson Step 2 : Cover and fill the body
Once the body of the piñata is complete, cover the papier-mâché surface by gluing colored paper to it, painting it with poster paint, or both.
Pop the balloon - Through the hole at the tied end of the piñata, prick the balloon with a pin, knife, or your scissors. (It may bulge slightly out of the opening due to the papier-mâché's drying--this is normal.) Fish the deflated balloon out of the piñata, and check with your fingers that the inside of the ball is totally dry. (If it's not, let it dry a little longer so candy doesn't stick to it--check it after an hour or so.)
Glue on some paper - Cut pieces of tissue paper in approximately 3-inch (7.5-centimeter) squares and glue them on the surface of the ball with the glue or glue stick. Overlap the squares so the whole ball is covered, except for the hole at the tip. If you're using particularly sheer, light-colored paper, you may want to glue on two layers to make the color look more opaque. Once it's covered, set the piñata aside until the glue dries, about an hour.
Make the hanger - The hanger consists of a loop of twine anchored inside the ball:
1. Holding a Phillips head screwdriver or ice pick, stick your hand into the hole at the base of the ball.
2. Bore a small hole in the end of the ball opposite the large hole.
3. Bore a small hole in the center of the metal lid.
4. Tie the ends of the 12-inch (28-centimeter) piece of twine together in a large, very secure knot, so the twine forms a loop.
5. Push this loop through the hole in the metal lid, and pull it through so the knot rests snugly against the bottom of the lid.
6. Holding this anchor, stick your hand back into the large hole, and push the twine loop through the small hole.
7. Pull the twine from the outside of the ball, so the lid rests against the inside of the ball and the loop hangs outside.
Note: Since the hanger assembly will need to support the weight of the filled piñata while it's being bounced around, strong twine and a secure knot are key.
Fill - Pour wrapped candy or other small goodies through the big hole in the piñata. Fill the hollow about one-half to two-thirds full, then wad up balls of newspaper or colored paper and fill up the rest of the cavity.
Plug the big hole - Now fold the plastic lid and fit it in through the big hole. Once it's inside, let it lie flat on top of the crumpled paper under the opening--the paper will help hold this plug in place. Glue some colored paper over the hole.
Lesson Step 3 : Decorate the piñata
Now you can attach shapes to the piñata to give it a distinct personality. These shapes (like an animal's head and legs, or the points of a star) are formed of paper or cardboard, taped or stapled to the main ball, and then painted or decorated.
Make points of a star - Take a piece of letter-size paper (8.5 by 11 inches, or 21.3 by 27.5 centimeters) and roll it into a cone. To do this, grasp one corner of the paper and fold it in so it touches down on the middle of the paper about an inch (2.5 centimeters) from one of the longer edges. Don't flatten or crease the fold, but let it curve naturally so one long edge of the paper begins to form the point of a cone and the other edge forms an opening. Roll and shape this curve until it's all rolled up into a cone with an uneven bottom.
Tape the edges of the paper flat along the outside of the cone to hold it together. Roll and tape four more cones. With scissors, trim the uneven bottoms of the cones so they stand upright when set on a flat surface. When you're done, they should be about 7 to 8 inches (17.5 to 20 centimeters) tall and about 2.5 to 3 inches (6 to 7.5 centimeters) in diameter at the base.
Attach the points - Along the base of each paper cone, make 1/2-inch (1.25-centimeter) perpendicular cuts every 1/2 inch to 1 inch (1.25 to 2.5 centimeters). Fold these outward to make tabs that will lie flat along the surface of the papier-mâché ball.
Place a cone on the top of the piñata next to (but not directly on top of) where the twine comes out. Spread its tabs out and glue or tape them to the surface of the ball. Glue or tape the remaining points evenly around the circumference of the ball, about every 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 centimeters), so it resembles a five-pointed star.
Make "rays" - Star-shaped piñatas look especially festive if they have "rays"--long skinny streamers--trailing from the tips of their points. Cut five pieces of crepe streamer paper into pieces at least 6 inches (15 centimeters) long. Then cut them lengthwise into long strips about 1/4 inch (6 millimeters) wide, leaving them uncut at one end so they stay attached to one another and you can attach them more cleanly to the point tips. Wrap the uncut end of a streamer around each tip and glue, tape, or staple it in place.
Cover the points - Cut 2-inch (5-centimeter) wide strips of crepe streamer paper into pieces a few feet (a meter or so) long. Then cut 1/2-inch (1.25-centimeter) slits in them every 1/16 inch (1.5 millimeters) along one edge. Wrap the crepe paper pieces around the points in a spiral, with the fringe on the bottom edge, from the base to the tip. Make sure the first layer of the spiral covers the tabs at the base of the cone. Glue the crepe paper pieces in place, placing each layer of fringe over the top of the layer below it. When the points are covered, fluff out the fringe with your fingers.
Lesson Step 4 : Rig and break it
Traditionally, each person who attempts to break the piñata is blindfolded and spun around several times. Another person pulls on the rope the piñata hangs from, making it into a moving target that's hard to find, much less hit with enough power to break. If your piñata party is for very small children, consider eliminating one or all of these obstacles to make it easier for the kids to break the piñata and claim their rewards.
To rig up the piñata, tie the end of a long piece of rope through the twine loop. Throw the other end of the rope over an overhead tree branch, rafter, or other support. Hoist the piñata up until it's hanging out of the way, then secure the rope until your partygoers are ready to start bashing away at it. When you start playing, the person controlling the piñata's rope can lower it nearly to the floor or lift it above head level, but should keep it within the hitting range of the person who's "at bat."
Note: Rigging a piñata outside is best. If you play inside, be sure to clear furniture and breakables in a wide margin around the piñata--that is, unless you want to hold a domestic demolition derby. That, however, would be an altogether different sort of party game.