Spain throws tomatoes, Italy chucks oranges, Switzerland lights turnips on fire, the United States carves pumpkins, but in countries of Latin origin throughout the world, the vegetable of choice is radishes. This is especially the case in the North American country of Mexico. Each year on the 23rd of December, the city becomes infiltrated by thousands of intricately designed radishes. They line the alleyways, peek out from storefronts, or stand by on vendor’s carts. The little pieces of vegetable art are all pervasive, they take over, they can’t be avoided.
It is Le Noche de los Rábanos, the Night of the Radishes.
Who Brought the Radishes?
The easy answer to this question was that the Spanish brought the radishes. In the 16th century, during the colonial period, the crop was introduced in Mexico and flourished. They became a staple of Mexican cuisine, both as a tasty snack by themselves, and as part of larger dishes. The vendors would peel them and carve them into interesting shapes and designs so that the people passing by would be attracted to the stall. Eventually, the idea gained popularity and more and more people started to make their own unique radish creations. Oaxaca became synonymous with radishes, and the first official festival was held in 1897.
The mayor, seeing the budding development of Oaxaca radish culture, organized the first radish art exposé to ever be held in the tiny village.
Noche de los Rábanos
The festival is held on December 23rd each year, two days before Christmas, in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Zócalo, the beautiful central square of Oaxaca. However, the preparation starts months earlier. The radishes are grown special for the festival, and therefore they are left in the ground much longer than the rest of the harvest. This practice allows for them to grow to extraordinary sizes, and into all sorts of unusual shapes.
Then, beginning three days before the festival, the artists begin to manufacture their elaborate creations. One of the popular scenes for the event, considering that it’s yuletide, is the nativity; but by no means are they limited to this. Other icons include warriors, animals, kings, dancers, flora and fauna, and just about anything else you can possibly imagine. Stalls throughout the Zócalo are stuffed to the brim with radish representations, and guests are encouraged to walk through, take pictures, and pick which ones they consider to be the best.
However, it’s not only radishes that are put on display, dried flowers and corn husks are also an integral part of the festivities. The artists compete in these three different categories, vying for cash prizes and local recognition. The first prize winner will get their picture, along with their ornate creation, in the local newspaper.
Each year, thousands of visitors come to Oaxaca for the Night of the Radishes in front of the Cathedral. Everybody who visits is treated to a local sweet known as buñuelos. Buñuelos are a Mexican pastry that are fried and slathered in a sugary syrup – the perfect snack accompaniment for wandering listlessly through the square. Guests are encouraged to shatter the dish that contained the pastry they just consumed, and by doing so they grant themselves good luck for the following year. Although the main event occurs on the 23rd, the next few nights are filled with festivities as well.
If you are going to visit this charming village for the Night of the Radishes, you should plan to stay a bit longer. The Christmas season in Oaxaca begins on the night of the 16th with a candle ceremony for the city’s patron saint, the Virgin de Soledád, and lasts until the New Year. The 17th is a dazzling fireworks spectacular in front of the Cathedral. Also during this week of festivities is a parade of floats, where local organizations and groups attempt to craft the most interesting pieces. And on Christmas Day, there is something called “Misa de Gallo,” or the Mass of the Rooster, which is the first worship celebration of Christmas.
All throughout the square the ground is covered in Poinsettias, granting the district a vibrant hue that complements the shades of the radishes. It’s a remarkably colorful festival, one of the most picturesque in all of Mexico.