Night of the Radishes

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photo credit: AlejandroLinaresGarcia. licensed under creative commons

This evening in the city of Oaxaca in Mexico there is a festival which is almost entirely devoted to the carving of giant radishes. It is called ‘La Noche de los Rábanos’, The Night of the Radishes. Radishes are, of course, not native to Oaxaca. They originate in China, and arrived in Mexico, along with Christian missionaries from Spain, in the sixteenth century.

Moving on a couple of hundred years, some time in the middle of the eighteenth century there was a huge glut of radishes. There were so many that some of the crop was left in the ground after harvest time. It seems that, in December of that year, two friars decided to dig up some of the forgotten vegetables. Left to their own devices, the radishes had grown into all sorts of unusual shapes that the friars found amusing. We must assume that eighteenth century friars did not have much joy in their lives. They selected the funniest ones and took them to market, which was held on December 23rd, and exhibited them as curiosities.

The huge and oddly shaped roots attracted a lot of attention and soon became a feature of the Christmas market. Oaxaca had a tradition of wood carving, and it wasn’t long before people began to carve the radishes to alter the shapes even more. The farmers at the market used the carved vegetables to attract customers to their stalls. Then, it being Christmas time, people began to make carved radish nativity scenes. In 1897, the Mayor of the city sponsored a competition with a prize for the person who had carved the best scene. The event has been celebrated every year since.

The current competition includes tableaux of other biblical stories, party scenes, famous buildings, folklore characters and saints. Originally, the radishes used in the competition were grown by local farmers but, as the city has expanded, there really aren’t local farmers any more. There is an area of the city which is set aside especially for growing the radishes for the competition. The ground is very heavily fertilised, and the crop left in the ground for many months which allows the vegetables to grow to a monumental size. They can be up to 50cm long, 10cm wide and weigh up to 3 kilos. Of course, you wouldn’t want to eat one of them, they are purely ornamental. Local authorities monitor the harvest and distribute it amongst registered contestants around December 18th.

In 2014, twelve tons of radishes were harvested and there were well over a hundred participants. There is a traditional category and a ‘free’ section as well as categories for children. The main prize is 15,000 peso. There are also displays made from corn husks and dried flowers. The competition attracts thousands of visitors. However, it is a short lived event. Radishes make a rather soft and perishable sculpture and exhibition lasts for only a few hours. The displays are set up in the morning. Visitors are allowed from late afternoon until early evening, with prizes being awarded around 9.00 pm. The exhibition will be taken down the following day, but even if you didn’t win a prize, there is still a chance to make a bit of money. People like to buy the radish sculptures to use as centre pieces for their Christmas dinner table.

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