A line that slithers around the zócalo (main square) swells like a python swallowing a sheep.
Riot police pour out of official vans, donning bulletproof vests and brandishing shields and machine guns. Crowd control is obviously a concern, and I can’t help but feel a little bit flabbergasted.
I am utterly astonished at the turn-out; thousands of people gathered on the night before Christmas Eve to see…vegetables.
I am in the colonial city of Oaxaca, and about to witness one of Mexico’s most bizarre festivals: La Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes).
I don’t really know what to expect. I mean, how festive can a radish be? Night of the Radishes; it sounds like the title of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I peer over the shoulders of the veggie lovers in front of me to try and get a preview. Long tables line the whole outer edge of the zócalo and are covered in tiny figurines.
Upon closer inspection, once I make it to the front of the line and climb the three steps onto the ‘viewer’s platform,’ I can see that the miniscule models are actually made out of corn husks. I wonder why the corn doesn’t get any of the fame and start to think of the radish as a bit of a diva. As part of an art form known locally as totomoxtle, the dried husks are twisted, dyed and shaped into wonderfully ‘corny’ creations.
I stop to stare at mini maize maidens making tortillas on a teeny weeny fire. Tarrying for too long to get a closer look however, gets me a stern warning from the Night of the Radish police. Keeping the line moving, understandably so, is an important job and not an easy one when dealing with rebels like me. I find it impossible to not periodically linger to gawk at scenes that could not possibly have been made out of corn’s outer protective layer.
I am also amazed to see what can be constructed out of dead flowers, or flor immortal (immortal flowers), as it is more poetically known in Oaxaca.
Sheep, small men playing flutes and riding bicycles, piñatas and even Mexican hero Benito Juarez’s1 famous quote: “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (respect for the rights of others is peace) are all made out of dried flowers that most people would throw onto the compost heap. Such creativity is wonderful to witness.
Virgins of many names appear in red vegetable glory: Guadalupe, La Soledad, Juquila- all versions of the Virgin Mary-beaming their perishable smiles back at people who have come from far and wide to see them.
There are flowers, men, women, babies, women carrying babies, celebrities, animals, musicians, and whole scenes of important Oaxacan events like Day of the Dead, made by people with more imagination and patience than I could ever hope to possess.
The radishes come in all sizes, some up to 50 cm in length. Most are heavily fertilized and grown in a special area since they are not acceptable for human consumption. The artists only have a few days to complete their short-lived masterpieces; the special radishes are allotted to them and they go to work competing for a $1300 US cash prize. Word on the street has it that this tradition was first started by a Spanish monk in the late 1500’s. He encouraged the local farmers to carve interesting figures into the radishes as a sale’s gimmick to make them more attractive to buyers. The sales tactic clearly worked and soon people began buying the radishes -not to eat-but to use as centerpieces for Christmas dinner. At some point it turned into a competition and this unique festival has officially been an event since 1897.
Taking place every year on December 23rd, Noche de los Rabanos is a fun and quirky eventto get you into the Oaxacan Christmas spirit. Although it does not last long-tables will start being dismantled around 9pm- the zócalo will be full of other festive events. Music, fireworks and illumination shows on the Cathedral keep the main square full of activity. Carts selling buñuelos (thin, fried pastries coated with syrup, sold around Christmas time), and esquites (corn in a cup with cream, lemon, chili pepper and cheese) add scent and flavor to the fiesta. ￼
Noche de los Rabanos is a free event. Radish viewing begins at around 5pm. Get there early to get a good spot in the line-up!
1Benito Juarez was one of Oaxaca’s-and Mexico’s- most celebrated leaders. He held five presidential terms in the 1800’s. He is known for his dedication to democracy and equal rights for the indigenous populations of Mexico.
2 Frida Kahlo was a painter with a colourful life and is now one of Mexico’s most famous icons. She became even more well-known after the 2002 Hollywood movie made about her life. She is the one that you see on paintings, beach towels and fridge magnets all over Mexico; the one with the uni-brow.
3Maria Sabina was a traditional shaman that incorporated magic mushrooms into her curing. This attracted a large following from the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and a whole host of well-known musicians and artists looking for ‘enlightenment’.
4 Satan is the Devil. You already knew that. You don’t have to know anything about Mexican culture to be in the know about this one.
Hungry for more? Read more about Night of the Radishes on MEXCONNECT.
HAS ANYONE ELSE BEEN HERE OR SPENT CHRISTMAS IN OAXACA? WHAT DID YOU THINK?