The Strange Festival of Noche de Rábanos
If you speak a bit of Spanish and you’ve never heard of this odd Mexican festival, you may be thinking that your language skills have faded a little. But if you translated Noche de Rábanos as Night of the Radishes, give yourself 10 points, because you’re correct.
Noche de Rábanos really is a one night festival held on December23rd in Oaxaca, Mexico, celebrating the humble radish.
Radishes were brought to Mexico by the Spanish and, like in the rest of the radish eating world, they were originally just a peppery red ball that came with a salad. But, as with all things Mexican, there is a legend behind Noche de Rábanos.
One year there was a truly phenomenal radish crop. Far more radishes grew than even the most ardent radish fan, or starving Mexican peasant could possibly munch through. Even the birds and animals had had enough of radishes. So many radishes grew that they couldn’t harvest them all and millions were simply left in the fields.
One day a pair of friars came across a forgotten field of radishes. Just for fun they pulled some from the soil and discovered that they were an amusing shape. The friars were so entertained by the radishes (these are the day before television don’t forget) that they decided to put them on display at the Christmas market in Oaxaca.
Well, as you can imagine, the locals were equally impressed by the troupe of entertaining red root vegetables (books were in short supply too) and they came to see them in their hundreds. Soon, rather than forage for brassicaceous crops of equally humorous shape, they skipped the grubbing around in the soil bit and started carving them into odd shapes themselves. Eventually carved radishes became the central feature of the Oaxaca Christmas market and the little radish town’s fame spread far and wide.
Christmas scenes are a great favourite for radish carving and are actively encouraged by the Church. Who could fail to be delighted by a little baby Jesus radish, in a tiny radish crib, surrounding by a host of Nativity radishes and proud radish parents? Other carvings are typically of animals and creatures from folklore as well as scenes from Mexican life such as wall climbing and tunnel digging.
Oaxaca introduced a radish carving competition into the festival in 1897. The problem with carved radishes is that they don’t last terribly long. In fact, they wilt within a few hours. So in effect it is a race against time in radish speed carving competition as well as against other professional radishistas as they are known. There’s no point in finishing the most beautifully carved radish if the start is going all dripping and yellow. With a grand prize of 15,000 pesos on offer a wilty vegetable isn’t going to pay the bills.
The popularity of the festival is now so great that queues to see the carvings can be up to five hours long, so if you like the idea of a Mexican holiday taking in the fascinating Noche de Rábanos, you’d better get there early.