Gingerbread houses can be awfully crusty, and not always in the golden brown sense of the word. The cookies get stale, the icing gathers dust, the whole thing gets sneezed on. In the central valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, they have an answer to this problem: build your charming yuletide food-art out of radishes. On one magical night each December, Halloween, Christmas, and general partying combine as radishes are carved up like something between a jack-o-lantern, a gingerbread village, and an edible arrangement.
The biggest Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes, takes place each December 23rd in Oaxaca City’s central square, or zócalo. The massive festival includes a competition for best carving, a large cash prize, and viewing platforms along which some 100,000 locals and tourists file past the lush, tuberous dioramas. But the origins of the festival are much more humble. Official records date back to 1897, when farmers selling produce at the municipal market wanted to up their display game Christmas shoppers. Some say the tradition of carving radishes dates back even further, that carving was born of the hard-sell a 15th century Spanish priest tried to spark interest in the non-native plant. As they say, when life gives you radishes, make a centerpiece.
In spite of Noche de Rábanos’ longstanding popularity in Oaxaca, it has remained a relatively regional festival in Mexico, and one that went unmarked in the US until recently. In 2009, restaurant owners at South Central’s Mercado La Paloma teamed up with the organization Esperanza Community Housing to create their own LA-based Noche de Rábanos. The event has grown in scale each year, including bands, folk dances, stalls selling seasonal sweets like ponche and buñuelos, and of course, radish carving. Though it was not too hard to attract attendees from Los Angeles’ sizeable Oaxacan community, it is apparently hard to get one’s hands on some of the supplies, like flor inmortal, tiny dried flowers native to Oaxaca which are often used to decorate the carvings. Juan Antonio and Sophia, proprietors of the Mercado’s Oaxacalifornia Cafe & Juice Bar, had to source larger, carvable radishes specifically for the event. Although the six inch red radishes they managed to get for this year’s festival seemed enormous, apparently they are nothing compared to the Oaxacan radishes cultivated especially for Noche de rábanos which can clock in at fifteen inches, and are particularly good for constructing cathedrals.
Most of the Oaxacans who attend this event have not carved competitively before—back home they leave it to the farmers—but there are plenty of old timers ready to try their hand because they know exactly how the figures are supposed to look. Yadira Arvelo, one of the event’s organizers, tells me that every year she hears older Oaxacans complain about the carvings of their young, Americanized children and grandchildren. Traditional radish carvings usually include scenes of folk life like dances from La Guelaguetza, another huge regional festival, or religious themes. But this year, alongside the chalice and the host, mixed in among the nativity scenes, there is a toy train entitled “Mi Infancia,” a little cluster of dinosaurs called “Age Dino,” and a snowman that does a surprisingly good job capturing the awkward oval snow-torso of Olaf, from Pixar’s Frozen.
Still, at Noche de Rábanos, tradition prevails. The winning piece is a scene executed with labor from a whole family, incorporating at least a dozen different radishes. First, there is the band, playing tiny radish instruments, wearing cornhusks wrapped around their heads like little turbans. They play “Las Mañanitas,” a birthday song that is traditionally sung sung, complete with a band, to the birthday person at the moment of waking. In this scene, though, the birthday girl is actually a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary from the rural town of Amialtepec.
At the end of the night a musician stops by, unplanned, to play music from his hometown in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. The sound is an unusual follow-up to the folk classics that were performed earlier in the night like the Flor de Piña dance: this musician plays a horn, sings in a regional falsetto style called “lamento Triqui.” The lyrics are in a little-used tribal language, and the audience is wowed by the impromptu performance. The MC wishes a goodnight and reminds the cheering crowd that Noche de rábanos is an important festival—the 10th most important festival! In Oaxaca! In the month of December! The holiday season is a busy one everywhere and Noche de Rábanos might just be the eve-of-Christmas-eve breather that the cookie-d out revelers need. Santa, a plate of radishes this year to balance things out?