Every December 23rd in Oaxaca, Mexico, a humble vegetable takes centre stage. No longer content to merely play colourful roles in guacamole or remain in the wings as an hors d’oeuvre, the red legume metamorphoses into elaborate carvings ranging from the Virgin Mary to revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.
La Noche de Rábanos began a couple of centuries ago when intricate figurines were carved so that customers emerging from midnight mass could differentiate various stalls selling salt-dried fish and vegetables. The carvings, often decorated with other vegetables like lettuce, onions and carrots, were so popular that Oaxacans purchased them to decorate their holiday tables. In 1897, the mayor came up with the idea of staging a radish-art competition in the main square or zócalo. Nowadays, hundreds of entrants vie for first prize of US$1300 and the notoriety of having their picture, with the winning sculpture, in the morning paper.
Two days before Christmas the fun starts in the late afternoon and lasts until the wee morning hours. Large wooden tables are pushed together — the public walks around the perimeter while artists (and countless others) guard their creations, incessantly spritzing them with water to enhance the red colour. There are radish saints and conquistadors enacting historical events and mythical tales, religious tableaux that always include a radish baby Jesus while village scenes depict everyday life. Scores of radish animals and dancers also animate the tables.
When we read about this fabulous event before leaving home, we had no idea about the kind of radishes we would be facing. Forget the harmless little grocery radishes. These Mexican varietals have been fertilized to grow to as much as two feet in length and weigh up to 10 pounds. Plus, the radish super heroes are incredibly thick skinned which allows for more precise carving. Oh, and don’t take a bite – they are completely inedible.
As with all things Mexican, one fiesta usually leads into another and so it was that the next night, Christmas Eve, we found ourselves back in the zócalo for calenda. This time, flatbed trucks carrying floats designed by the churches of Oaxaca paraded around the main square accompanied by hundreds of people carrying candles. The vehicles had been transformed into adorable manger scenes complete with innocent girl angels in sparkly white dresses topped with gilded halos and boy shepherds garbed in striped cloaks cinched with a rope. As the floats circle the square, children throw hard candies to the increasingly enthusiastic crowds who ravenously gobble them up and run behind the trucks with hands outstretched for more. With so much sensory overload, we almost missed the Three Kings who careen about on stilts, sending everyone into uproarious laughter.
When the float procession finally departed the zócalo and headed back to the churches, real pandemonium took hold as enormous sparklers appeared, swirled about by tipsy revelers; firecrackers madly exploded everywhere and nattily attired mariachis pulled out all the stops while locals, in their most fabulous costumes, danced in the streets. Like all bona fide Mexican fiestas, this one ended with the crackle of fireworks and shots of tequila. Who needs egg nog anyway?