December is jam-packed with holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Boxing Day, to name a few. But you won't want to miss out on Mexico's Noche de los Rabanos, or "Night of the Radishes."
Each Dec. 23 in the Mexican city of Oaxaca, the main square (or zócalo) comes alive with sculptures of dragons, alligators, local celebrities, the Virgin of Guadalupe and even former Mexican president Benito Juarez — all carved from huge, wonky-shaped, deep purple and red radishes.
Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca — or simply Radish Night, as it's become known — is a 125-year Christmas tradition in this predominantly Catholic town, where artists vie for the best sculpted radish display, which earns them a cash prize and year-long bragging rights.
Radishes are not native to Mexico. They were brought over by Spanish settlers and monks more than 200 years ago. it is largely believed that two Dominican monks encouraged local farmers — Zapotec and Mixtec people along with other indigenous groups — to grow the radishes, along with other fruits and vegetables they brought, for food.
It was a smart move. During the colonial period, Oaxaca was a very small city situated in a lush, fertile valley. Harvests from local farms and plantations were so plentiful that farmers brought much of their bounty to sell at the city market. At the time, the market was set up near the cathedral in what is now Oaxaca's zócalo.
One year in the mid-18th century, the crop of radishes was so abundant that a portion of the radishes in the field (usually dug up in spring) was left unharvested. That December, the two aforementioned monks pulled up some of the radishes and were shocked by what they saw. They had grown into massive, odd-shaped blobs. The monks were so entertained by these vegetable "demons" and "monsters," that they brought them to the Christmas market, which was held the day before Christmas Eve. Marketgoers there became fascinated by them as well.
Another interesting thing about Oaxaca is its long-standing wood carving tradition, which dates back to pre-Hispanic times and continues to this day. At some point, local wood carvers took a fancy to the giant radishes on display and decided to carve them into Nativity scenes to further entice Christmas market shoppers.
In 1897, Oaxaca's Municipal President, Francisco Vasconcelos, decided to make the radish-carved Nativity scene tradition official and created a competition to be held on Dec. 23. The event became an annual one. At some point, the competition expanded to include a greater variety of shapes and figures.
These Are Not Your Average Radishes
To participate in the 125-year Night of the Radishes festival, locals have to use specific radishes cultivated by the government on land near the city's airport. The city plants them over a three-month period so by harvest time, they come in different sizes.
These aren't your average radishes, either. Unlike the small, bright-pink and round radishes you buy from the grocery store, the radishes grown and carved in Oaxaca are wonky-shaped and huge — up to 30 inches (80 centimeters) long and weighing in at more than 6.5 pounds (3 kilograms). Some can be as big around as a human head. They're also not very tasty. Their sole purpose these days is to be carved for the festival.
Each entrant is assigned a plot number based on the order in which they signed up. Then, four days before the event, entrants are allowed to harvest the radishes in their assigned plot. Each year, about 10 tons (9 metric tons) of radishes are harvested for the competition.
Once the radishes are harvested, participants spend the next few days (and sometimes sleepless nights) cleaning and carving them. On Dec. 23, they head over to the zócalo to set up their elaborate radish displays, often with family members pitching in to help.
Visitors — which now come by the thousands — stroll through the town square to watch the artists fine-tune their radish masterpieces, while also enjoying concerts, fireworks and light shows. Around 9 p.m. on the night of Dec. 23, judging takes place and the winners are named.
How the Radish Competition Works
There are two primary radish-carving categories in the modern-day Night of the Radishes competition — traditional or free. The traditional category requires the radish displays to reflect the Oaxacan culture and festivals. The free category allows entrants to carve anything they want.
There are also two other categories participants can enter — totomoxtle natural, scenes made with corn husks, and flor inmortal, scenes using dried flowers.
The masterpieces these artists create are literally jaw-dropping — intricate mission-style architecture, Egyptian gods, scenes from mezcal production, replicas of Michelangelo's "La Pietà," da Vinci's "The Last Supper" and replicas of the three kings delivering gifts to baby Jesus.
Judging is held around 9 p.m. and is based on beauty, technical skill and creativity. Three winners are chosen from each category and each receives a cash prize of around 12,000 to 30,000 pesos (about $625 to $1,500).
But the most cherished prize of the competition is the bragging rights winners keep until the next year, when the Night of the Radishes returns.
Now That's Interesting
Radishes are, of course, a perishable vegetable. And one of the biggest challenges (besides having the skill or talent to carve radishes) is keeping them fresh so that they are still perky and firm through the night of the competition. Participants have different techniques for this, but it usually involves regularly dousing them with water.
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