Six years ago, my family set sail around the world from the beach town of Bucerías on Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit – a place where small, colourful homes and businesses line the narrow cobbled streets, chickens and dogs wander freely, and banda music blasts from passing cars.
Now that we’re finally back on Mexico’s west coast, it seems fitting to celebrate our accomplishment the local way: with a piñata, a colourful, hollow papier-mâché sculpture designed to be filled with candy and then smashed to smithereens.
Selkirk’s family set sail around the world from Bucerías, Mexico (Credit: Eric James/Alamy)
Visitors to Mexico often buy local folk art as souvenirs. Some of the most admired work in Bucerías is Huichol art: intricate sculptures that use beeswax and beads to create designs. Weavings, pottery, carvings and glasswork are also popular souvenirs for visitors to the region. But piñatas, made by local piñateros (piñata-makers), are rarely considered art. They’re heavy, cumbersome and, quite frankly, not meant to last.
However, piñatas are a ubiquitous ingredient of life in Mexico. Part of the cartonería or carton piedra (rock cardboard) tradition ‒ which also includes mojigangas (giant puppets), masks and dolls ‒ the piñata is as vital to Mexican celebrations as mariachi music. Traditional fiestas, such as the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration in mid-December, call for donkeys, fish and birds. For birthdays, kids gravitate toward cartoon and action figures.
The piñata is as vital to Mexican celebrations as mariachi music.
Typically created in small cottage workshops, piñatas can be made to order or bought from shops or market stalls. When my 15-year-old daughter, Maia, and I set off to buy a piñata to celebrate our successful circumnavigation, I started at a Bucerías neighbourhood dulceria, a shop devoted to piñatas and a dizzying (and stomach-churning) variety of sweets with which to fill them.
Not finding exactly what we were after, my daughter and I were encouraged by a local friend to meet her neighbour, Zoraida Marco.
The piñata is vital to Mexican celebrations (Credit: MISCELLANEOUSTOCK/Alamy)
In her small studio, located several blocks north of Bucerías’ main square, we found Marco working on one of the 20 custom piñatas she makes each week. Her creations, built from balloons, a ceramic pot and a pile of newspaper strips, often start off looking identical. It’s not until she gets inventive with glue and tissue paper that they take on unique features. After the sculptures dry, she adds the final touches and sells each figure directly to the buyer for 80 pesos (sweets not included).
Marco, whose family of agricultural workers never had spare money to buy piñatas when she was growing up, decided 17 years ago to take a government-offered piñata-making workshop in the local square. The creations she enjoys making the most are the cartoon and public figures.
We watched her source the right shade of blue for a dress from a stash of crepe and tissue paper, and then deliberate whether the hair on Princess Anna from the Disney movie Frozen should be redder or more brown.
As an artist, Marco says that it’s important that she get her handiwork right ‒ even if it is just going to be destroyed. “People are so excited when they turn out well,” she told us.
Marco builds her piñatas from balloons, newspaper and ceramic pots (Credit: Diane Selkirk)
Depending on whom you ask, piñata use either dates back to the Aztecs, or it arrived in Mexico with the Spanish Conquistadors. According to experts from the Museo de Artes Populares in Mexico City, clay pots were decorated with feathers and filled with small ornaments to celebrate the birth of the Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli. The pot was then broken with a stick and the little treasures spilled at the god’s feet as an offering.
Meanwhile, experts at the Centre for History and New Media attribute the tradition to Marco Polo, who, after seeing locals in China celebrate certain events by taking hollow sculptures of animals, stuffing them with seeds and then smashing them with sticks, brought some figures back to Europe where they were eventually incorporated into the traditional celebration of Lent. From there, it was just a boat ride to the New World, where Spanish missionaries first used the familiar activity in 1587 to lure converts to Catholicism by using their destruction as a parable for good versus evil.
These days, people still look for significance in piñata use. According to a wood-worker in the Bucerías market, piñatas fall in the category of temporary or disposable art. Like the destruction of alfombras, the intricate carpets of flowers and sawdust which are part of Guatemalan Easter celebrations, the destruction of a piñata is considered a creative statement.
“People are so excited when they turn out well,” said Marco (Credit: Ton Koene/Alamy)
The owners of the dulceria had assured me it’s a healthy stress-releasing activity for kids and adults. “Hitting the figure gets out your aggression ‒ especially when you hit a politician!” I was told. However, some online sources voice concern that hitting your favourite cartoon character (or least favourite civil servant) condones violence and might be emotionally damaging.
When I asked for her opinion on the matter, Marco gave me a blank look. The grandmother, whose craft makes her especially popular with her grandkids, is pretty sure piñatas are just about fun. The fact that she spends hours making creations that are destroyed in less time than it takes the materials to dry is just part of what makes them special.
Maia and I settled on a mermaid piñata to represent her years on the ocean. When we got back to the marina, we strung the figure between two coconut palms and invited the children from other sailing families to take a swing.
The Selkirks chose a mermaid piñata to celebrate their time at sea (Credit: Diane Selkirk)
Our mermaid took a few solid hits before her ceramic centre broke with a mighty crack. The kids scrambled for the sweets that came spilling out, and Marco’s work ‒ our carefully chosen piñata ‒ was reduced to tattered pieces of papier-mâché.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.