Inside Oaxaca's radish-carving festival

"I feel so proud of being part of something so traditionally Oaxacan," Daniel Rojas tells me as I enter a dimly lit room rich with the earthy smell of radishes.

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Susannah Rigg (CNN)
(CNN) — "I feel so proud of being part of something so traditionally Oaxacan," Daniel Rojas tells me as I enter a dimly lit room rich with the earthy smell of radishes.

They are preparing for a radish-carving festival that in 2017 celebrated its 120th anniversary in Oaxaca, Mexico. Rojas and his friend Antonio Aquino continue to carve away at radishes, making figurines of churches, people and Catholic virgin figures as they talk. On the floor beside them are some hundred or so large radishes still to be carved, and everything has to be complete by noon the next day.

"We won't be sleeping tonight," says Aquino, and both men laugh. They're clearly running on adrenaline, excited but exhausted.

A different kind of food fair

La Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes, began when market sellers at the Christmas market held every year in Oaxaca's main square would carve radishes to attract buyers. In 1897, the Municipal President of the city, Francisco Vasconcelos, declared that there would be an official radish-carving competition each year on December 23 and it became an annual tradition.

Entrants can either participate in the Free category, carving anything they like from the radishes, or the more popular Traditional category, which requires entries to reflect Oaxacan culture and festivals in some way. There are also two more categories for children to enter.

In order to ensure a fair competition, the government cultivates the radishes on a piece of land close to the city's airport. Four days before the festival, the entrants head to the land to harvest their designated plot -- a plot number is assigned to them based on the order in which they signed up to the competition.

These radishes are not the small, bright pink radishes you might find at a supermarket. These are huge, deep purple radishes, some of which grow up to 80 meters long. They are planted over three months so that they vary in size to give the carvers more variety. Each year, some ten tons of radishes are harvested solely for the competition.

"I don't think they are edible," says Rojas, moving the large vegetable from palm to palm. Specially produced for the competition, these radishes are pumped full of fertilizer to make them grow big and would probably not be very kind on the stomach.

'Twas the week before Christmas

With the competition taking place on December 23, the entrants in this majority Catholic country spend five days just before Christmas enveloped in a world of radishes. One day for the harvest, one day for cleaning the radishes, two days to carve and the final day placing them on display as thousands of visitors file past through the day and night to see them.

Carving a perishable vegetable not only takes an artistic touch -- Rojas is a textile artist when he isn't carving radishes -- but it also holds another challenge: ensuring that the radishes do not wilt before the competition is judged.

Rojas and Aquino have various techniques for keeping their radishes fresh, from placing moss on the figures to spraying them regularly with water. (They also have another secret technique, developed over their four years of entering the competition -- but this one they're not prepared to share.)

The carving, therefore, takes skill, creativity, and judgment, deciding what to carve first, what to leave until last and then how to display it on the day. Competition is friendly but serious. Both men have their eyes clearing focused on winning and with a prize of 30,000 pesos (around $1,500), the incentive is big. However, it's clear that pride in being part of something so quintessentially Oaxacan seems to be a more powerful driving force than the prize money.

As I leave them to work, I can't help thinking how much there is still to be done. Throughout the evening, I imagine them still there, carving and creating as the sun sets and rises again.

Judgment day

The next morning, I go to the main square to find Rojas and Aquino. Frazzled after the long night, their nerves are obvious. Rojas is concerned that their display space is smaller than last year, which means he has to rethink his presentation. However, later in the day as the sun is close to setting, I return and they are calmer, a happy tiredness setting in.

Huge lines of visitors are still waiting to see the displays that will be on show until midnight. Some entrants sit hidden behind their works of art, eating and chatting with family members, while others talk to visitors eager to know more about their creations. Carvings range from Egyptian gods and scenes of mezcal production to the three kings delivering gifts to Jesus. Oaxaca's most famous living artist, Francisco Toledo, even finds his way into radish form, complete with a beard made of moss.

Entrants are young and old and some come from families who have been carving radishes for the competition for decades. One entrant explains that for him and his family, the Noche de Rábanos is as fundamental a part of the Christmas celebrations as dinner on Christmas Eve.

By now, most entrants are eager to know who the winner will be. A few hours later they will find out that an ethereal nativity scene carved by Hermenegildo Contreras Cruz, who has been participating in the competition for some forty years, has taken first prize.

While Rojas and Aquino are obviously disappointed not to win, they're not disheartened and are already forming ideas about what they will be carving for the Night of the Radishes in 2018. This, however, is another secret they're prepared to share.

All we know is that from December 19, 2018, there will once again be a room on the outskirts of Oaxaca city, rich with the smell of radishes waiting to be carved.

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