Radishes are not native to Mexico. They were brought over by Spanish settlers and monks more than 200 years ago. it is largely believed that two Dominican monks encouraged local farmers — Zapotec and Mixtec people along with other indigenous groups — to grow the radishes, along with other fruits and vegetables they brought, for food.
It was a smart move. During the colonial period, Oaxaca was a very small city situated in a lush, fertile valley. Harvests from local farms and plantations were so plentiful that farmers brought much of their bounty to sell at the city market. At the time, the market was set up near the cathedral in what is now Oaxaca’s zócalo.
One year in the mid-18th century, the crop of radishes was so abundant that a portion of the radishes in the field (usually dug up in spring) was left unharvested. That December, the two aforementioned monks pulled up some of the radishes and were shocked by what they saw. They had grown into massive, odd-shaped blobs. The monks were so entertained by these vegetable “demons” and “monsters,” that they brought them to the Christmas market, which was held the day before Christmas Eve. Marketgoers there became fascinated by them as well.
Another interesting thing about Oaxaca is its long-standing wood carving tradition, which dates back to pre-Hispanic times and continues to this day. At some point, local wood carvers took a fancy to the giant radishes on display and decided to carve them into Nativity scenes to further entice Christmas market shoppers.
In 1897, Oaxaca’s Municipal President, Francisco Vasconcelos, decided to make the radish-carved Nativity scene tradition official and created a competition to be held on Dec. 23. The event became an annual one. At some point, the competition expanded to include a greater variety of shapes and figures.
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