Verdant View – December 2023

Festival del Rabano – Radish Festival

Las Tentaciones de San Antonio, Diego Rivera

Last year in December my husband, Brad, and I decided to take a weeklong trip to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, to visit our Zapotec friend Doña Antonietta. We met Doña Antonietta and her husband Lucio in Ajijic, where they visited and sold their wonderful tapetes, or rugs. Together we created “Weaving Week in Ajijic” and brought a weeklong weaving exhibition and sale to the plaza in Ajijic. While learning the ancient art of natural dyeing from Antonietta’s daughter Susana in Teotitlan del Valle, we took day trips to local points of interest. One of those points was our visit to Oaxaca City. After many years of absence we found Oaxaca City disappointing due to its urban sprawl, but our love for the Zapotec culture was heightened by the lovely, traditional way of life we experienced in Teotitlan del Valle.

One of the unusual and unique festivals I’ve always wanted to attend in Oaxaca is the Festival del Rabano, the Radish Festival. The tradition of holding a yearly radish carving competition dates back to 1897 when Oaxaca City’s mayor, Francisco Vasconcelos, decided to make the contest part of that year’s Christmas market, which sold traditional flowers, herbs and ingredients for holiday dishes as well as decorations for the home. Because radishes had always been integral to Oaxaca’s Christmas cuisine as both an essential ingredient and a decorative garnish, the radish contest was seen as a fun way to promote local agriculture.

When the tradition of the festival started, the radishes to be used in the competition were grown along the Río Atoyac. The land was slowly eaten up over the years by the expanding capital city and the local government eventually had to set aside an area of land that would only be used for cultivating the festival radishes. According to a CNN article on the topic, the local government in recent years has taken a more active role in the competition, securing a plot of land near the local airport to grow the radishes. During the growing months, new plantings are added every few weeks to give competitors a range of sizes to work with (and to prevent anyone from cheating). A few days before the event, competitors of all ages and skill levels can harvest their assigned plot. Most years, the total haul of the ruby-skinned roots weighs in at approximately ten tons, with some of the individual radishes swelling in size to more than 30 inches in length. A large, white radish called criollo was once used in the competitions but can no longer be found in the Oaxacan countryside. Today’s sculptures and figurines are made from the more common radishes found in any local market that have a white flesh and pink exterior.

There is no study that accurately classifies the species of radishes that were grown to make the different figures, and definitions by common names can be confusing. Horticulturists consider the existence of four kinds of radishes: the cambray, the criollo (which is white and large), the chihuahueño and the foreigner (which is longer and thicker). It seems that the native criollo radish was the one that was used previously, as it adopted the most capricious forms and did not rot easily if left too long in the humidity. Unfortunately, this species disappeared and there were no seeds left to reproduce it. That is why the first sculptures were worked using the natural forms of the radish, and with only a few cuts and creative assemblages the artists achieved the impressive sculptures.

Many of these specimens can measure up to fifty centimeters and weigh up to three kilograms.

Radish Sculpture

Generally, the symbolic planting is carried out by the municipal president in the first days of October. The sowing is done three months in advance to obtain the right size and weight of the radish. The process of making and molding each of the figures of the radishes begins. This is carefully thought out according to the topic you wish to present. To accomplish these works requires skill, imagination and time. The gardeners and flower growers exhibit their artistic talents with special designs made in radish, immortal flower (vibrantly colored dried flowers) and totomoxtle (corn husks.) Competitors get busy carving their lot into elaborate dioramas ranging from nativity scenes to dramatic moments in Mexican history. The figures have to start to be worked a week before the event. To do this, they must be kept moist and protected with wet pasle (Tillandsia) wrappers. If selected by judges, the winning entry in each of two categories (“traditional,” which must embrace Oaxacan culture, and “free,” where anything goes) receives an award of about $1,500 pesos.

Winter Solstice

December is also the month that we acknowledge the Winter Solstice. In Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, Thursday, December 21, 2023 at 9:27 pm CST is the Winter Solstice.  The Winter Solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year. It was used to mark the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun. Days start growing longer now. The winter solstice was immensely important because people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. While we celebrate the winter solstice, those living in the Southern Hemisphere will be simultaneously marking the arrival of summer. While our half of the globe is inclined away from the Sun, their half is inclined toward it. Being tilted away from the Sun brings us shorter days and colder temperatures.

In Druidic traditions, the Winter Solstice is thought of as a time of death and rebirth when nature’s powers and our own souls are renewed. It marks the moment in time when the Old Sun dies (at dusk on the 21st of December) and when the Sun of the New Year is born (at dawn on the 22nd of December), framing the longest night of the year. The birth of the New Sun is thought to revive the Earth’s aura in mystical ways, giving a new lease on life to spirits and souls of the dead. Welsh for “Light of Winter,” Alban Arthan is a universal festival, which has been (and still is) celebrated by many people and is probably the oldest seasonal festival of humankind.

What to plant in December

December in our area is cool in the mornings and at night, but warm in the afternoons. You will start to see poinsettias everywhere you look. The Aztecs called poinsettias cuetlaxochitl. During the 14th-16th century, the white sticky sap was used to control fevers, and the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye. Poinsettias, which are also known as nochebuena flowers, are native to Mexico and are a popular Christmas decoration all around the world. They were originally cultivated by the Aztecs, and their red color symbolizes purity, which fits perfectly with Catholic Christmas traditions.

In the viveros you’ll also find Christmas cactus, cineraria, fuchsias, petunias, pansies and snapdragons. The birds-of-paradise may stop blooming, but they’ll come back as soon as it begins to warm up. Many plants will be going into a dormant period and this is a good time to prune them, before they start putting out new growth as the weather warms. Don’t overwater your plants at this time and fertilize less or not at all. Irrigation should be reduced, not stopped, as plant photosynthesis slows down and cold weather dries plants out. The garden pests are slowing down as well, but keep an eye on them as our ground never freezes and they are with us all year.

Plant more spring-blooming bulbs early this month, and save some to plant from mid-February through mid-March for extended bloom through late spring.

You can still plant cool weather veggies now. Sow chard, kale, leeks, Bibb, butter crunch and romaine lettuces, mustards, green and bulb onions, flat-leaf parsley, peas, radishes, and savoy-leafed spinaches. Sprinkle just enough seeds to settle them in.

Norfolk Island pines can become mini holiday trees or solstice bushes by including some tiny lights and sparkly ornaments. Think about repurposing items around the house and garden as decorations.

Don’t worry that your house plants don’t seem too lively now. They are going dormant, just like many plants outdoors. Plants need this rest.

Additionally, I like to incorporate flowers such as begonia, browallia, lobelia, dianthus, dusty miller, and nicotiana to add color and attract beneficial insects to the garden.

Some fruits that also thrive in Zone 10 during this time are melon and grapefruit.

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Francisco Nava
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