Blog10 Christmas in Oaxaca

The public celebration of Christmas in Oaxaca is, like Gaul, divided into three parts.

1.   The 23rd.         

Although our house rental in San Pedro Etla does not begin until December 29, we reserved in our favorite Oaxaca Hotel, the Parador San Agustín (rooms 214 or 215), from the 23rd. After another of those seven-hour tilt-a-whirl drives from coastal Huatulco over the Sierra Madre Occidental, and with Linda’s cold now at the croak-snort-hack-throb stage, we were glad of the warm welcome. In came the luggage, out like the proverbial light went Linda, off came my Keens, and BOOM went the barrage of fireworks announcing Oaxaca’s Night of the Radishes! Sandals back on, camera bag over my shoulder, out the door I went as Linda moaned: “Take lots of pictures.”

The Belén (Bethlehem), aka the Nacimiento (birth scene), is a common tradition in much of the Catholic world and seems universal in the Hispanic lands. By tradition, the first manger scene was constructed in 1223 by Assisi’s favorite son Francis as a way of refocusing the Christmas season from the secular materialism of gift giving to an appreciation of the birth of Jesus (clearly work still needs to be done). His version used live actors to pantomime the holy events. Static tableaux using carved figurines soon replaced theatrical performance. For the last half millennium the Belén has been a model of the humble stable in which Jesus was born: a straw lined manger cradling a baby Jesus doll, a maternally attentive Mary and a patiently marginalized Joseph, farm animals of diverse species but always with sheep and their guardian shepherds and usually cows and donkeys, angels on high (which generally means on the roof or dangling from something on a thread), hills that can be snow-covered or palm-tree studded or both, and, depending on the size of the Belén, three exotically-clad Magi, on camels, plodding toward the manger. And, of course, a star. Often, thanks to the 1955 Trapp Family Singers’ hit song, standing next to the manger is a little drummer boy. Living traditions always seem to be accreting something or other. Like Santa Clauses in a tropical plaza, getting their pictures taken. Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” on the Muzak in the Oxxo convenience store down the street.

Every Hispanic family I know collects stuff for their home Nacimiento, each year adding bits to the figurines grandma has archived in the closet. In December, every market in the Hispanic world offers a choice of donkeys and dolls made of plastic, clay, straw, wood, paper, tin, Styrofoam, plaster, concrete, and glass. (And, as many a museum attests, royalty and their wannabes could also build theirs from precious metals and jewels, though we haven’t seen those in the street markets.) For people who haven’t stored their models of the stable, hills, trees and farmyard stuff from one year to the next, the markets offer those things too, as well as complete mangers prefabricated from sticks and moss and straw. In December every church puts out a Nacimiento next to the principal altar. Every department store, hotel, restaurant, government office, and for all I know doctor’s waiting room displays one. And there has been one on the main plaza in every Hispanic city or village we have ever visited in December.


But, … radishes?


Oaxaca is the only place we know where the tradition is to build your Belén out of carved radishes. Big, juicy, radishes. Red ones and white ones. Pointed ones and round ones. Not everybody in the city does this, of course, but those who do choose to work within the limits imposed by the medium. As every kitchen maven knows, freshly picked radishes, when freshly cut, are crisp and white and delicious. After an hour or two they begin to weep juice and to show a little less muscle tone. Their aroma loses its assertiveness. Radishes in yesterday’s salad retain some flavor, enough to recall their original pungency, but have definitely gone to flab. No radish Magi can sit on their radish camels for the entire month of December; no mother wants to cuddle a week-old radish baby Jesus. Radish nacimientos have to be in the moment. And the moment is the night of December 23rd.

As I push into the crowd

streaming toward Oaxaca’s central plazas (there are two plazas, one in front of the Ayuntamiento, the City Hall, the other in front of the Cathedral; the two are joined at one corner), the odor of radishes grows stronger. In the Ayuntamiento Plaza, which measures about 80 meters on each arcaded and restauranted side and is heavily treed with a bandstand in the center, the city fathers have erected an elevated, U-shaped walkway all along the plaza’s perimeter. It is fenced on both sides, with an entry on the corner by the Compañía, the Jesuit Church, and an exit near the corner where the political protestors usually set up, although for Christmas they have been relegated to a side street.

The walkway is filled butt-to-belly with people, old, young, tourists, women in native dress, moms holding kids, grandpas holding more kids, cameras and cellphones in hand, as they slowly pass by the line of tables filled with radish-carved nacimientos. I think about joining the line, but find that the queue to enter the gate stretches for three city blocks, so I content myself with peering between long gringo legs and tiptoeing to see over children’s heads.

What I see are radish camels, radish angels, chubby red-cheeked radish baby Jesuses, white radish-gowned Marys, radish palm trees, whole herds of smiling radish sheep, and a little radish drummer boy or two. Each individual scene would cover a card table, and the individual figures range in size from thumb to forearm. And not just nacimientos. There are radish market scenes, radish orchestras led by radish conductors, radish dance troupes, radish parks and playgrounds, even a radish Don Quijote and windmill.

Behind each scene—one or two scenes per long table—is the artist or sponsor, spray bottle in hand, whooshing longevity vapor at the tiny figures. This is a competitive business, and there will be prizes: for technical mastery, for originality, for the best overall presentation. There are judges with notebooks. I move slowly down the line, using my long lens to see details that I am too far away to appreciate. When I turn the corner, I find a second category of figures, these made of straw flowers instead of radishes. At the next corner these give way to scenes constructed with corn-husk dolls. It is slowly turning to dusk, and I am distraught to think Linda is missing this. I ask a policeman how long the viewing will go on.

“Two in the morning.”

I go back to the hotel, but I don’t rush. After an hour or so, Linda and I return to the plaza. There are even more people than there were before. Lights on the Cathedral roof reveal workmen lashing strings of fireworks to every protruding stone and railing. Large bamboo towers, consisting almost entirely of rockets and sparklers, now flank the Cathedral’s west entrances. Linda and I gawk for another hour or so, and then—we haven’t eaten since breakfast—head down a couple of blocks to La Red, one of our favorite seafood restaurants, for a seafood stew and a plate of shrimp. It’s nearly nine, now, and Linda is beat,

so I take her back to the hotel and return for another amble around the Plaza which, somehow, seems more crowded than before. Musicians play in front of each of the restaurant-cafés; marimba, saxophone, Andean quenas add to the cacophony. About 10:30 I fade, and by 10:45 am back home, showered, and fast asleep.

Until 2:00, when the world comes apart. It’s the fireworks, marking the end of the Night of the Radishes.


2.         The 24th.

After breakfast in the hotel, I go to the plaza a little after 9:00. It is as if the Night of the Radishes had never happened. Not a table, not a fence, not a speck of litter, the waste barrels that were overflowing last night are empty cylinders. Only the saxophone is left, slowly blowing “Bésame mucho” at a three tables of tourists having breakfast.

            Christmas Eve day and all the stores are open, the canned Christmas music is blaring, the “temporary” stalls choking the sidewalks are dispatching plastic donkeys, Barbi Dolls, gloves and scarves, pirated CDs, as fast as they can hand over the merchandise and pocket the coins. There are clowns in the plaza, a great circle of grownups and children around them, laughing uproariously at the lamest jokes. Strolling vendors hawk candy, bead necklaces, huipiles, knit hats, balloons, bubble gum, packets of firecrackers. Families with kids, the moms in high heels, the dads in casual chic with cameras slung around their necks, flow back and forth across the two plazas in slow undulation: most seem to be what’s known in Mexico as Internal Tourists, come to Oaxaca for the Christmas school break. Raspa vendors pour dayglo-flavored syrups over paper cones of shaved ice. Members of the expat community, mostly Americans to judge by dress, accent, and rhythm of walking, filter through the crowds, as do the foreign tourists. In addition to lots of English, we catch snatches of Castilian Spanish, Argentinian, German, and something that—judging from the blondness and the strangeness of the tongue to our ears—might be Finnish.

            By six o’clock Oaxaca has gone quiet. For the most, part stores and restaurants are shuttered. The two plazas are all but deserted. It’s gotten dark, we haven’t eaten since breakfast, and we figure it’s now or never. The high-priced plaza cafés don’t attract us. Nothing is open on Calle Alcalá, the tony pedestrian street leading up to the Santo Domingo Monastery and Museum. Coming back down García Vijil we find that Vieja Luna, a classy Italian restaurant, is open, and we dine on salmon lasagna and spinach and ricotta pizza, both excellent. Halfway through dinner, a loud blaring of horns in the street draws us, along with most of the other patrons, to the door. It is a procession: a girl carrying an image of the Virgin followed by fifty or so people with candles shielded in red paper globes, and a band made up of a trombone, a couple of trumpets, a clarinet and a couple of tambourines. Down the hill they go, back to our tables we go, and five minutes later the whole dance repeats. And five minutes later, repeats again.

            Check paid, Linda and stroll down hill toward the formerly empty plaza. Processions cross in front of us at each corner. It seems that each parish in the city has a cofradía, a brother/sisterhood organization, that sponsors a Christmas Eve parade for the parish faithful. A pickup pulls a flatbed float of a Belén with 8-year-old Mary and Joseph enthroned behind a baby doll on a bale of straw. From the other side

comes another flatbed, bearing a dozen angelitos with toilet-paper-carnation studded wings, trailed by it’s own brass band, this one with greater volume than it has sense of rhythm. Behind us, in front of us, from the side streets, everyone is heading for the plazas. The areas in front of the cafés are filled with procession dancers in elaborate costumes, huge baskets of fruit or fantasies of flowers balanced on their heads. Near the bandstand giants are dancing, three and four times life-size, their oversize paper-maché bodies resting on the shoulders of the dancers who are hidden under their skirts. One group of giants follow their band out of the plaza and another parades in. The crowd ebbs and swirls to the shouts of children and the flashing of smart phone cameras.

            Linda and I last until 10:30 or so before we stagger home to bed. Linda’s cold is such that she had reached nadir some time back, and was vertical only by dint of adrenaline and delight. As we turned out the light we said: “Until the fireworks.”

Two o’clock, on the booming dot.


3.         The 25th.

Christmas Eve-Eve was radishes. Christmas Eve was giants. Christmas Day must be reserved for quiet family home celebrations, we figured logically, if only half-correctly. During the day the downtown was indeed quiet, with everything shuttered but the plaza cafés, the Michoacana shops that are the universal purveyors of ice cream on the corner of the plaza (this is true of almost every plaza in Mexico, in any place large enough to have a plaza), and stores selling artesanía to the tourists. In the morning, wearing long sleeves and fleece vests, we have the streets to ourselves. By noon, now in short-sleeve shirts, we see strolling foreigners and a few Oaxaqueños walking their dogs. By 5:00, with the food vendors out in force, the two plazas are again shoulder-to-shoulder.

By late afternoon the raised platform to the south of the Cathedral has been claimed by balloon-mad children from about age 3 to 13. These are the lucky kids who have persuaded their accompanying adult to buy them a long, sausage

shaped, bright-colored balloon. By long I mean 8 feet or so, and thick as a loaf of sourdough rye. The gig is to launch the balloon with one’s hands as high as it will go, and then go running after it screaming. Catch it, or pick it up off the ground with a squeal of glee, run back to one’s unmarked but sacred launch ground, and repeat until dragged home by one’s exhausted responsible party. Or at least until Linda and David go back to La Red for another plate of shrimp.

During which, someone clad in the classic estudiantina garb of black knee britches, black shirt, and black cape from which hang a couple of dozen brightly colored ribbons, comes to our table and hands us a flyer. Concert at 8:00 in San Felipe Neri of the Tuna de Antequera and the Coral Aleluya: 75 peso donation. The classic tuna is a musical group made up of male (and these days female) college students, accompanied by guitars and bandurrias, a kind of 12-stringed mandolins, sometimes with a tambourine or two and maybe an accordion for good measure. The tuna sings in the streets, busks in bars, and hires itself out for birthdays, baptisms, and such. I played guitar one in Madrid, the Tuna de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad Complutense, in 1962, for several months until our director, having dunned us for money to buy the tuna new uniforms, ran off to Argentina with the cash. Anyway, I’m a fan. Linda, still coughing her way through her catarro, went home to bed, and at 7:50 I showed up at San Felipe Neri.

Caped and be-ribboned Tuna members milled in the street, as did 40 young women (and 2 men), ages 6 to maybe 40, clad in red vestments covered by a white lace smock, obviously members of the Coral. I could see through the open door that the church was already packed, but not, it appeared, wholly with audience, for up on the altar was a priest apparently still saying mass, as evidenced by most of the people rising and sitting and kneeling in unison. Out in the street, individual Tuna and Coral members were buttonholing passersby to sell them tickets to the concert. I already had mine, because I had been buttoned by a bandurria player two blocks previous and was waiting by the lamppost we had agreed on for him to go find my change. The mass went on. The potential audience crowed into the church’s atrium, behind the fence that separated the church from the street.

Some foreign tourists, who don’t understand these things, went on into the church and looked for seats among the parishioners. This started, if not a stampede, a drift toward the door, powered by the fear that there might not be enough seats to go around. I waited a few moments (in this society one just doesn’t barge into mass if one is not there to worship), until I noticed that many of the Mexican members of the public were pushing in too, so I joined the surge. I found myself a spot in a pew halfway up the aisle, between two women who had mimeographed prayer sheets in their hands, and an old man who seemed to be mumbling some prayer, sotto voce, out of sync with the priest. By 8:20 it was clear that there were not going to be enough seats for everyone. The center aisle and side aisles were full. The priest was way past the Eucharistic service, but was adding hymn after hymn, the congregation following along from the song sheets, with no sign that he was aware of the chaos developing in front of him, even though by then both the Tuna and members of the Coral were trying to thread their way through the crowd toward the front of the church. Only a few of the foreigners, who stood out by coloring, dress, demeanor, and the fact that most were a full head taller than anyone else, seemed to be getting antsy.

Finally the priest, a vivacious, gray-haired man in his 60s, seemed to be approaching a conclusion. Acolytes forced their way up the side aisles to collect the song sheets. Then the priest rallied the congregation with a chanted prayer that in my more than a half century of haunting Hispanic churches I had never heard before.

“Repeat after me,” he shouted. “Pocketa, pocketa, pocketa, pock.  U-chucka, u-chucka, u-chucka, chuck. Ho, Ha, Sis Boom Bah, Jesús, Jesús, rah, rah rah. Now, follow me: Pocketa, pocketa . ..” And sure enough, all those old ladies and mumbling men banged on the pews with their hands and Pocketa-pocketa-ed right along with their priest. I think I was gaping like a gargoyle. And when he had finished, he boomed: “Now let’s hear another one, this time for María, José, y Jesús! Pita, pita, PÍN, pita, pita, PÁN . . . .”

Well, eventually the priest wound down. The congregation half of the audience made its way out into the street. Most of the concert audience found seats on the pews. The Tuna and Coral arrayed itself across the altar. Microphones were placed, sound levels were checked (loudness, 10; clarity, 2). Unintelligible announcements were made. And the combined Tuna/Coral launched into its first number, a Sicilian Christmas Hymn.

Frankly, after the Sis Boom Bahs, the concert was an anticlimax. They performed 12 numbers, and the guitars and bandurrias sounded the same on all of them. The 70 or so performers all sang in unison, so there was no harmony to appreciate. They all swayed back and forth on every number, which by the third song was just annoying. The tall tunante flag-bearer waved the banner with abandon, only narrowly missing the statues and figurines on the baroque retablos that framed the altar, and that created some interest. I knew a few of the carols, but nobody else seemed to be singing along, so I just mouthed the words without vocalizing. My favorite song, Los peces en el río, they took so up-tempo that for me it lost its pizzaz.


Mira como beben, los peces en el río,          

mira como beben, por ver a Dios nacido;    

beben, y beben, y vuelven a beber,                

los peces en el río, por ver a Dios nacer.      .


Look how they drink, those fish in the river,

look how they drink, to see God born;

they drink, they drink, they drink again,

the fish in the river, to see God being born.


Well, take my word for it, with the music it’s charming. It really is.


David & Linda