The Sheltered Islander: Cultural Fusions on Shelter Island

Colorful culture on Shelter Island
Colorful culture on Shelter Island. Credit:

The Germans brought the tradition of putting up a tree in the house to celebrate Christmas. In no time at all the colorful custom of decorating a tannenbaum with lights and ribbons became ubiquitous in America and is now firmly ensconced as part of the Christmas tradition.

Just as the German-Americans brought us the tannenbaum, the Mexican-Americans have brought us the piñata. Any party with kids these days seems to include a piñata. The cultural fusion is amazing. I have seen menorah-shaped piñatas at Chanukah parties, shamrock-shaped piñatas for St. Patrick’s Day, lots of Christmas-themed piñatas, Halloween and Easter, too. It sounds like such a fun idea to take a paper mache shape filled with candy and let blind-folded kids, armed with bats or sticks, swing at it with enough force to crack it open. What could possibly go wrong? YouTube is filled with video clips of fathers writhing on the ground after a direct hit, and mothers dropping trays of food after being knee-capped by a 5-year-old with a bat. Yet, in spite of almost certain injury and humiliation, the tradition grows. Shelter Island always puts its own spin on things, and piñatas would be no different.

“Did you get the candy for the piñata, Joe?”

“Ellen, your list said ‘six pounds of assorted wrapped candy,’ I knew that couldn’t be right, you don’t want them having all that sugar, and I don’t want candy wrappers all over my lawn, so I swapped the candy out.”

“What do you mean the swapped the candy out? For what? Piñatas always have candy, the kids will be looking for candy.”

“They’ll like what I got better, I got these cute little plastic balls with bells in them.”

“Let me see what you’ve bought. Oh Joe, these are cat toys!”

“A toy is a toy, they all like toys.”

“I sent you out for six pounds of candy, and you bring back twenty cat toys. This won’t work. Get back in the car and go get the candy!”

“No, they’ll get wrappers all over my lawn. I’ve got a bunch of unopened fishing bobbers, I’ll put them in the piñata with the toys.”

“Fishing bobbers? Are you serious?”

“They’re island kids, they can give them to their fathers, it wouldn’t hurt if he got a little kickback for all the money he spent on them. Besides, we’re Polish, what are we doing with a Mexican piñata?”

“It’s not Mexican anymore, Joe. It was, but now it’s standard party entertainment. Did you notice the piñata is shaped like a conch shell? It’s perfect for an Island party and the kids love them.”

“Okay, okay, I give up, I’ll go get the candy.”

“And a plastic bat. I forgot to put that on the list.”

“Can’t they just use an aluminum bat? I got one in the garage.”

“Sure honey, any bat is fine. I’m gonna have you supervise the kids for safety. You just blindfold them, give them a bat, give them a couple of spins, aim them for the piñata, and turn them loose.”

“Blindfold, bat, spin ‘em, piñata, got it. What could possibly go wrong?”

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