A girl hits the piñata in just the right spot, freeing the candy from inside  

Birthdays are important events to celebrate in Sonora. This is especially true for young children, who celebrate the annual event with a piñata party.




The birthday celebrations start at one year of age, which is a big birthday party, perhaps because in the past it was cause to celebrate if your baby survived to its first birthday.

But for whatever reason, even though the baby has no idea what's going on, its introduction to fiestas has begun.

The following birthdays are also significant, especially when the child reaches the age where it has some young friends, and can swing a stick at a colorful piñata.

And the piñata party has its own customs and rituals. For starters, the parents set the start time an hour or two before they want people to show up. I used to joke with my Mexican wife about the "reloj Mexicana" (Mexican watch), which operates a bit differently than those north of the border, or in other places.

A starting time is only a basic guideline, not a strict requirement. So if the starting time of the fiesta is 4:00 p.m., the integration of the event with your other afternoon activities might mean that you show up at 5:30. And that's expected. The starting time generally reflects the time when the salon de fiestas will open and invitees can start to arrive and play on the playground equipment.

But despite the laxness of the start time, piñata parties have some very specific features in common, to include the order and timing of events. They are typically held in a rented "salon de fiestas" that is designed just for that purpose, typically with a trampoline (brinca brinca) and lots of playground equipment for the kids to play on.

The invitees typically bring other children with them (the neighbors, relatives, etc.) so there's a lot of kids. The party will have a theme, like Hannah Montana or Hello Kitty for girls, Spiderman or Transformers for boys, which ties in with the decorations, the piñata, the cake, the table centerpiece, the plates, the napkins, and even the birthday boy or girl's clothing.

After arriving, the kids leave their gift on the table with the large sheet cake and go to play, while parents sit at tables to chat, and snacks (botanas) and sodas will be served. Then the piñata will be prepared, and the kids will take turns swinging at it until the candy comes out. After that, there may be some organized games, like musical chairs, followed by a meal. After the meal it's time for the birthday boy or girl to take a bite (mordida) of the cake, during which someone will push his or her face down into the cake, resulting in a cake-filled face.

Then the cake is served, followed by the distribution of bags of candy and treats to the guests before they leave. And like other events, the centerpieces of the tables go home with the guests. After cleaning up the salon (to get their deposit back) the family will pack up the gifts and remaining food and miscellaneous items and take them home, where the child will open the presents.

For many families this happens every year, for every child.