OAXACA, Mexico — Neither radishes nor Christmas are indigenous to Mexico, but the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians here manage to combine the vegetables and a religious festival in one celebration called La Noche de Rabanos, or Night of the Radishes.
By 3 p.m. on Dec. 23 families from the hills around this regional capital have trickled into the zocalo (plaza) in horse-drawn carts, on foot, on horseback or in noisy old trucks.
Most bring long red radishes, some already carved, others to be touched up on the spot. A few unpack figures and objects made of corn husks and flowers.
The adults spread out behind a double row of booths on one side of the square. Silently, unsmiling, one person, usually a woman, arranges moss or radish leaves for the base of her display.
This is serious business. Prize money, as much as $500, rides on these radishes. Children help quietly, with longing looks toward a carrousel or balloon vendor. The few words exchanged are in one of the region's Indian dialects.
Exhibitors concentrate on their own displays. Important figures go in first. A Madonna in a radish cloak, covered with radish flowers, is settled, moved an inch to the side, then moved back.
The Holy Family, in one pose or another, is the favorite theme, but there are also radish bullfights, a radish well of mortared bricks, radish Indian dancers with headdresses larger than their heads, Maya gods, palm trees with radish coconuts and even a Christmas Eve feast with all the food carved from radishes.
A radish cowboy rounds up cattle with radish red coats. A radish figure climbs a greased pole for radish prizes.
Three radish wise men, one black, hands clasped in prayer, regard the radish infant in his manger. Radish camels wait behind the travelers.
While exhibitors tether radish birds to fly from a string above the figures or erect an arch announcing Posada y Adoracion Nacimiento del Nino, spectators gather, wander from booth to booth.
They are the advance guard of a crowd that will fill the square by midnight. Excitement mounts. Exhibitors are silent and anxious.
Last year there were as many Mexican tourists as British, German, American or Japanese. Mexicans from other regions find Oaxaca exotic because Zapotec and Mixtec Indians still speak their own dialects.
On this high plateau the air is bright and the temperature hangs in the 60s. From Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, until Jan. 6 and Epiphany, or Kings' Day, life is a series of feast days and celebrations. La Noche de Rabanos falls in the middle.
At dusk, lights above the booths blink, the front of the governor's palace lights up and Christmas lights around the square intensify the swirl of color below.
Crowds are dressed for a fiesta. Women knot the celebrated Oaxacan rebozos around their heads. Full, embroidered skirts and blouses or short, embroidered, white huipils , or cotton pullovers, striped in day-glo red and off-white, complete their costumes. Children wear primary colors, men wear big hats, white pants or jeans and sandals.
Mariachi bands stand near wherever there is a knot of people and break into brassy marches.
When every radish, flower or corn-husk figure is in place, exhibitors step back and wait. Police edge crowds away from booths.
Judges in the city-sponsored contest soon move slowly along the two rows of booths, saying little, taking notes. The crowd, sensing the drama, is quiet.
First, all the radish tableaux are critically regarded, then the displays of flowers and corn husks, grouped at one end. The flowers and corn husks first appeared 10 years ago, and still aren't considered quite as good as the radishes.
As judges confer, viewers press forward, make their own choices, bet on winners.
Awards are announced in a blare of scratchy Spanish from the loudspeaker. Onlookers applaud. Exhibiting families, grinning, push into the palace, followed by half the bystanders. It's standing room only.
With a brief speech, the governor awards prizes--first, second and third--and honorable mention, and hands out envelopes. Winners, losers and spectators laugh and applaud again. The suspense is over.
Exhibits are bought by spectators to enjoy over the holiday or are taken home by the artists. Crowds funnel down a narrow walkway in front of each row of booths to line up at the end, then inch through again. Later, people settle at one of the tables that spill out from the three restaurants on the square.
Vendors selling rebozos, dolls, filigree earrings, belts, knives and throw rugs swarm around the tables.
Black pottery, found only in this area and turned in the village of Coyotepec, is piled on street corners. Green ceramic animal musicians also are for sale. Men stand proudly, arms draped with serapes. The women badger or cajole, the children whisper and ask with their eyes. Saying no isn't easy, especially to a woven wool rug copied from a post card-size picture of a Joan Miro, a Pablo Picasso or an Henri Matisse.