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Radish Festival Brightens Oaxacan Holidays

The Radish Festival showcases Oaxacan talent every year on December 23rd. As a way to boost local agriculture in 1897, Mayor Francisco Vasconcelos Flores made the town’s radish-carving competition an official event. To this day thousands of people stand in double-tiered lines, waiting for hours to view the brilliantly weird creations.

Nothing Says Christmas Like a Giant Radish

Carving vegetables for holiday celebrations is not uncommon. We carve pumpkins into Jack o’ Lanterns for Halloween and turnips into festive lanterns for Autumnal celebrations.  So why not radishes to celebrate Christmas?

These are not the dainty radishes from our dinner tables. Grown specifically for the Radish Festival, approximately ten tons of the root vegetables are harvested for the event. They can weigh in at six pounds and measure 20 inches or longer. Today, they are heavily fertilized and left in the ground longer than usual to encourage the growth of quirky appendage-like shapes to inspire contestants to greatness.

In the early years, the intricately carved dioramas primarily portrayed religious Christmas scenes including the Nativity and Las Posadas (the journey of Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus). Over time, popular motifs expanded to include imagery from everyday Oaxacan life. Contemporary radishes might be transformed into churches, dancers, farmers, or local animals. On the more daring side, radishes might become celebrities, monsters or dragons. Even political statements are fair game.

A Heritage Of Artistry

Oaxacans are known for their artistry and craftsmanship with a tradition of carving that dates from pre-Hispanic times. Wood and papier-mâché sculpting are among the many art forms for which the region is known. On The Night of the Radishes (Noche de los Rabanos), professional artists and amateurs  take their chances at the roots. Children are encouraged to enter their own category to preserve their heritage into the future.

Even Radishes Get Their Moment Of Fame

Most contestants register and plan their creations months in advance. That said, only so much planning is possible until the harvest reveals the shapes of each artist’s radishes. Local officials oversee the growth in a plot of land set aside specifically for the festival. Harvests are carefully monitored to ensure that every artist has a fighting shot at the gold.

Radishes are harvested and issued around December 18, and the creation begins. Artists work frantically for a few days.

Starting in the early afternoon of December 23rd, the setup begins as artists and their support groups arrange their creations on tables lining the Zócolo (town center.) Tiered platforms allow viewers a glimpse of the holiday radish extravaganza.

The lineup starts at around 4 p.m. with wait times up to several hours. Throngs of residents and tourists view the fleeting masterpieces.

Results are announced around 9 p.m. One winner is chosen for each category: “traditional” and “free style.” The prize is approximately $1,200 (converted from pesos.) Children have separate categories.

According to AcademicToursOaxaca.com:

“Presently this fiesta is organized by the city government and prizes are given in three categories, plus a diploma to the winner of each category as an incentive to keep their talent & heritage.”

The radishes begin to shrivel, but the Christmas spirit grows with Oaxacan-style festivities.

In The Beginning, They Were Merely Radishes

Originally from China, Spaniards brought radishes to Oaxaca. According to AcademicToursOaxaca.com historical documents show that:

“Dominican Friars taught Zapotecs & Mixtec Indians to grow vegetables and flowers brought from Europe and in 1563. By Royal decree, lands were given to them in a fertle area called Trinidad de las Huertas, south of the city, which means “trinity of the orchards”.

This is was the home of  the farmers who supplied produce for the residents of  the colonial city of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca Declared UNESCO Site

UNESCO officially recognized the city of Oaxaca de Juarez in 1987. It was joined on the UNESCO list by the nearby archaeological settlement of Monte Alban, once home to the Zapotecs.  UNESCO writes:

“The centre of the city remains the centre of economic, political, social, religious and cultural activities that give dynamism to the city. It retains its iconic architecture and the buildings representative of a cultural tradition of more than four centuries of art and history. 

Oaxaca is also considered a World Cultural Heritage Site because of it’s culinary accomplishments, festivals and arts. In addition to the Radish Festival, important celebrations include Dia De Los Muertos in early November and Guelaguetza which celebrates the variety of cultures in Oaxaca in July.

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