The art of bashing birthday pinatas -- hit them with your best shot

October 26, 2003|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Iraqi weapons of mass destruction: Were they a real threat? Did they, in fact, exist? If so, will they ever be found?

Beats me.

Now that I've cleared that up, I'd like to devote what little space I have left to the issue of pinata safety.

A pinata is a festive party item, usually shaped like a classic fairy-tale character such as Spider-Man; it is used to traumatize children at birthday parties. This has become very popular: As the parent of a 3-year-old, I attend approximately 84 birthday parties per weekend, and every one has a pinata, as well as (this is federal law) a clown.

In fact, it was a clown at a recent party who got me thinking about pinata safety. She was an older clown, who had been clowning professionally for 20 years, which is a long time -- maybe too long -- to be spending every weekend wearing comical pants and a scratchy wig, endlessly twisting balloons into shapes for children who, over the years, have become harder to please, who are no longer satisfied with your classic balloon dog or balloon sword, no, these kids today, they want balloon versions of every licensed character that comes along -- they want Nemo, they want Lilo, they want STITCH, and when you try to warn them -- when you say, "Don't take the balloon outside! You'll pop it!" -- they never listen, they go outside and ... POP -- now they're crying, and they want you to make Stitch AGAIN, and ... and that's pretty much how this clown sounded.

"Grumpy the Clown" is how I thought of her. Her technique for creating a magical mood for the children was to periodically bark things like, "Be careful on those chairs! You'll fall over backward and crack your head!"

So anyway, I was with my daughter, who was waiting, a tad apprehensively, for Grumpy the Clown to paint her face, and some dads were trying to hang the pinata -- a Buzz Lightyear model -- from a nearby tree. Buzz was smiling brightly, not realizing that children would soon be beating him with a stick. That's what children do with pinatas; I've seen them whack savagely on Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer, Barney, even Minnie Mouse. It's very disturbing (except when it's Barney).

And the thing is, the children become increasingly violent, because pinatas -- ask any parent -- are almost impossible to break open. For some reason, they are built to withstand a nuclear attack. We should get the pinata manufacturers to make cars; nobody would ever be hurt in an accident again.

But getting back to the party: Grumpy the Clown, painting a butterfly on a child's cheek, was recalling the first birthday party where she clowned professionally, two decades earlier.

"They had a pinata," she recalled, "and it fell down and hit the birthday boy and gave him a big cut over his eye. There was blood everywhere. We were singing "Happy Birthday," and he was on his way to the emergency room."

This reminded another parent, a Miami police officer, of a party where there was no tree they could hang the pinata from, so he volunteered to hold the pinata, dangling it from a string in his hand, and needless to say the birthday boy, who was blindfolded, nailed him in the ribs with the stick.

"It hurt to breathe for a week," he said.

This is why many parents go for the modern "safety" pinata, which has a trapdoor with strings hanging down. The children grab the strings, and on the count of three, they all give a yank, and when they do ... nothing happens! Because this type of pinata is also virtually impregnable. The Pinata Security Task Force has seen to that.

So a parent has to step in and yank the trapdoor open, releasing a cascade of candy and cheesy toys. This is when things get really violent, as the children -- who own literally billions of much nicer toys -- dive to the ground and engage in a desperate, life-or-death struggle for items that they will immediately lose.

This struggle is especially brutal for the smaller children, because there's always one unusually large male child -- a child who drove himself to the birthday party, a child under contract to the Pittsburgh Steelers -- who winds up with most of the loot. If you ask me, this is just plain wrong, and something needs to be done about it, just as soon as we get this situation squared away in Iraq.

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