Oaxaca, Mexico’s Noche de los Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) makes the U.S. tradition of carving pumpkins for Halloween look like it’s dying on the vine. While a scary pumpkin face can be illuminating with the help of a candle, imagine red and white radish dioramas as far as the eye can see, just days before Christmas.
On December 23 for the past 100 years, Oaxaca’s town square is filled with elaborate vegetarian displays ranging from nativity scenes featuring everyone from Mary and Joseph to the three Wisemen carved out of radishes to the crucifixion. Moving on from its religious roots, the carvings in recent years have depicted everything from dragons to mariachi bands to taco vendors in streets scenes. In some cases, the shape and tentacles of the oversized radishes suggest the theme. All entries are part of a competition that is the highlight of the celebration. The winner receives around 12,000 pesos (around $590 USD).
According to multiple online sources, the tradition came about when farmers in the field and then competing shop owners carved their vegetables into artwork to attract customers shopping for the holidays. The unique carvings,fastened with toothpicks, were also sold as table decorations.
“The tradition of holding a yearly radish carving competition dates back to 1897 when Oaxaca City's mayor, Francisco Vasconcelos Flores, decided to make the contest part of that year's Christmas market, which sold traditional flowers, herbs and ingredients for holiday dishes as well as decorations for the home,” reports The Culture Trip.
The artwork is world class because the city is also known for its wood carvers, a skill that translates admirably to radishes. Just Google it and see for yourself.
Radishes originated in China and are a member of the Brassicaceae family, along with mustard and cabbage. And while we’re used to dainty little round radishes that make excellent roses, the ones specially grown for the festival in Oaxaca, are oversized, tubular vegetables that aren’t in the least relish-tray-worthy. The festival-only radishes are picked on Dec. 18 and competitors have only a few days to carve their often life-size entries for the judges.
The displays are left up until after Christmas, but they have a short shelf life since they need to be constantly sprayed with water to keep them from turning brown around the edges—a full-time job.
The event attracts a huge number of visitors crowding the town's square, which most likely will mean that the fate of the 2020 festival is in question. Numerous internet searches didn’t address what was happening in Oaxaca this year in time for our deadline. But hopefully 2021 will mark 101 years.