The piñata is a Mexican festive creation, typically a papier maché figure filled with lollies. The figure is suspended above the ground, and participants take turns to be blindfolded and swing at the figure with a stick until it breaks open showering guests with sugary treats.
A few years ago, Sophie and I had our first go at whipping up a piñata. These were the days before the internet became the first stop for esoteric craft advice so we improvised. We built a llama using a frame work of soft-drink bottles and cans taped together, then covered the whole thing with several layers of papier maché. It was pretty successful, but a short-coming was having to cut the entire creation in half once it was dry to remove the bottles and cans and insert the goodies. However, we made a handful more in the same style, branching out from llamas into the classic cartoon cactus.
This Christmas, Sophie’s family have invited all known extended family members to converge on an aunty and uncle’s house in the hills. We were invited to make a celebratory piñata to keep the masses entertained, so we dusted off the newpapers, and got to work.
Although we have prowled the piñata-making ghetto of Chihuahua City, beyond being dazzled by streets populated by papier maché figures decorated with headache-inducing colour combinations, we didn’t glean any insights into traditional methods – if anyone has any ideas for better ways to do this, please let us know in the comments below!
1. Planning the substructure.
For this Christmas we wanted to make a departure from traditional Christmas symbols like reindeer, candy canes, and bells, that hold little resonance for us here in the South. Instead, we decided to create a turkey, which, while satisfying the traditionalists, for those more bioregionally-inclined, it could equally be interpreted as a mallee fowl. To plan, we drew an outline of the figure we were after, then broke that outline into shapes – an oval for the body, a cylinder for the neck, a triangle for the head, and then thought about what materials we had that more or less resembled those shapes. So, our turkey/mallee fowl’s skeleton emerged from a balloon, two toilet rolls and some cardboard, taped together.
2. Papier maché
From here, it’s really just a process of adding layers of papier maché. Our recipe is pretty slap-dash, as the piñata essentially exists to be beaten into pieces. We put some water in a bucket, and add flour, mixing as we go. We then tear up strips of newspaper, and dip them in the mixture. A good consistency is milky, with floury residue coating the newspaper when it’s removed. Add several layers of papier maché over the entire creation and leave to dry. I find papier maché very satisfying to work with, it allows for a surprising amount of subtlety in sculpting shapes, and there’s something meditative about gradually building layers, following the form of the object.
3. Finishing the papier maché
Once the first few layers of papier maché have dried, you can identify parts where the figure might need more reinforcement. Add as many layers as you consider necessary. It can be useful to use distinctive newspapers so you can keep track of how many layers you’ve done, for example, on the final layer, I used Chinese language newspapers so I could ensure that I completely covered the piñata. Often, you can use brown paper for the final layer. Brown paper is slightly heavier than newspaper, and can create a consistent tone across the whole shape.
4. Loading up
Once dry, I cut a V-shape in the top and gently bent it upwards, allowing me to reach inside and remove the balloon and scraps of masking tape. We then piled in a few bags of lollies, and taped the door closed.
To decorate, we looked through our collection of wrapping and crepe paper to find just the right level of psychedelic vividness. With the crepe paper still folded, I cut it into strips, and then made cuts across the strips to create a fringe. Then, starting at the top of the tail, I began to glue the strips in place, placing the subsequent strips so they overlap two thirds of the previous strip. In this way, I continued over the entire fowl up to the head. The legs were made from cardboard shapes, wrapped in festive wrapping paper and glued in place. Likewise, the beak was covered with the same paper.
6. Stringing it up
When it comes time to string it up, we’ll probably tie string around its neck and tail and suspend it like so. Particularly forward-thinking piñata makers may wish to improve on this design by papier maché-ing the string around the body at an earlier stage.