I actually came across this watching a TV cooking show. I’m surprised that I have not read of this previously, and I suspect that the original sources are suspect.
Still, if you look at Wikipedia, the Piñata concept was global in ancient times:
It seems reasonably clear that the Piñata originated in China, and spread to Spain. The Spanish introduced the game to Central America, but apparently the Aztec and Maya already had something similar:
The Mayan tradition was similar to the modern piñata tradition, including blindfolding the participant hitting the piñata. The Aztec tradition commemorated the birthday of Huitzilopochtli. Priests would place a clay pot decorated with colorful feathers. When broken with a stick or club, the treasures inside would fall to the feet of the idol as an offering.
The source of this is an article by Wendy Devlin from 2007:
At the beginning of the 16th century the Spanish missionaries to North America used the piñata to attract converts to their ceremonies. However indigenous peoples already had a similar tradition. To celebrate the birthday of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, priests placed a clay pot on a pole in the temple at year’s end. Colorful feathers adorned the richly decorated pot, filled with tiny treasures.. When broken with a stick or club, the treasures fell to the feet of the god’s image as an offering. The Mayans, great lovers of sport played a game where the player’s eyes were covered while hitting a clay pot suspended by string. The missionaries ingeniously transformed these games for religious instruction. They covered the traditional pot with colored paper, giving it an extraordinary, perhaps fearful appearance.
The article cites no sources, and the other online Wikipedia references seem to be dead-ends.
Either this is a great piece of evidence for pre-Columbus contact, or simply a case of Meso-American people adopting a ritual and the history books getting a little bit muddled about it.
Does anyone know of serious research on this?