Looking for alternative Christmas plans? Why not celebrate Oaxaca’s Night of the Radishes?

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Oaxaca's Night of the Radishes
Credit: Drew Leavy/Flickr/Creative Commons

A festival of radishes, at first blush, might sound as exciting as a festival of Tupperware or a festival of string.

But have you seen a Mexican radish? When grown to 20 inches long and six pounds heavy—some are the size of your forearm—they can be as daunting and impressive as the gnarliest carrot or yam. They are no joke, and far more interesting to look at than that “normal” little veggie Westerners know as a salad or taco garnish, sliced innocuously thin.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, the town square—known as the zócalo—is filled to the brim with radish-loving tourists and locals every December 23rd, and has been since 1897. It’s not because the locals are rabid vegetarians. That date is the Night of the Radishesla Noche de los Rábanos—and aficionados travel from all over Mexico and beyond its borders to see the intricate displays carved by craftsmen and women. Gargantuan radishes are transformed into red-and-white nativity scenes, radish-only Last Suppers, and trippy secular scenes like “Radish in Wonderland.”

Thousands of curious onlookers form a line that snakes through the streets of Oaxaca’s capital city, waiting to see the artwork. The artists—more than 100, all competing for a cash prize—take advantage of the radishes’ odd natural shapes as they concoct their vignettes: A strange, wispy root may become a long, plaintive arm. A quick slash of a knife into the radish’s red skin creates white accents. It’s an incredible thing to see, and the city rallies to witness the event.

How did this fascinating festival get its start? The arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 16th century coincided with the arrival of radishes in Mexico, the story goes, and soon afterwards farmers began carving elaborate sculptures out of their radishes to attract the attention of locals at the markets. In 1897, the mayor declared the Noche de los Rábanos an annual tradition, and children and their parents flocked to the zócalo every year to see the fun.

Today, block after block fills with people sipping hot chocolate and champurrado (a thick, chocolate-and-masa-based drink), eating buñuelos (fried dough), and—if you’re this writer—watching men dressed as Santa breakdancing. In recent years, corn husks and flowers have begun to dot the vignettes, although no one seems to find those quite as entertaining as the rábanos themselves. One year, a 6-pound radish snacked on another, smaller radish, with relish. ¡Rábanos comiendo rábanos!” (“Radishes eating radishes!”) laughed the people around me.

After the line has snaked around the rábanos, the judges—usually local officials and luminaries—take the stage to the announce the winners. The triumphant few will take home more than $1,000 in cash to offset the price of those radishes and their travel costs, but some locals and tourists will also negotiate for their favorite rábanos after the festivities end.

The best tip if you plan to attend? Get there early, before the stalls open up, and get in line. Put in an order with a friend to pick up champurrado and sweet bread—pan de naranja, or orange bread, is fantastic pretty much everywhere in town—and maybe snag a dance with Santa. How else are you gonna pass the time?