We found a wonderful hostel in Oaxaca that was only a short walk from downtown. With Christmas approaching all of the hotels and our hostel were almost at full capacity. As a result, we had to take beds in the 6 room dormitories. As soon as we dropped our backpacks we headed to the Zocalo (town square) to check out the festivities. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting; the town was busy and alive, full of people and activities and all sorts of commotion going on everywhere. The entire square had been converted into a flea market and there were locals and tourists everywhere. The vendors were doing brisk business as people shopped for Christmas gifts, souvenirs and sipped coffee at sidewalk cafes. It was much like being at Disneyland so far as the crowds go – it was crowded and people moving about all over. In addition, there were bands playing, parades marching and skyrockets and firecrackers bursting continually.
I wandered around the square and listened to some of the bands; some Mexican people spontaneously broke into dancing and there were calls from the crowd and everyone was in a happy and merry spirit.
As I worked my way to the other side of the square I came upon a large group of people who were holding some kind of political rally or demonstration. It was quite peaceful; they had speakers and traditional music and they danced as the people watched on. There were some signs and placards and I believe that the people were complaining about the Mexican Government’s treatment of the dissident group in the Zapata region to the south. There had been a recent insurgency there and apparently the government cracked down quite brutally.
As I wandered around I saw stall after stall of vendors selling sweets, drinks, clothing, musical instruments, souvenirs and all kinds of Mexican arts and crafts. I must have walked around for an hour or two just enjoying the festive and peaceful holiday spirit. The mood and character of the town was quite unlike any Christmas that I was accustomed to in the United States and it was very interesting to see how these southern Mexican people celebrated. I practiced my Spanish a bit with some locals and asked some questions. I was told that the entire state of Oaxaca comes to the capital city sometime during the 3 days of celebrations leading up to Christmas. I was told about the Radish Festival and the locals recommended that I check it out. Raddish Festival? Hmmm… not sure about that…
Near the Cathedral, I saw the Police changing guard; the sergeant gave a brief to the men and then they fanned out into the crowd. I was told that there is quite a pick-pocket business here and that the large police presence discourages thieves. Despite the political protests, I felt that the police presence was friendly and neutral. It never felt like a “heavy hand” of a police state at all. The policemen were friendly and seemed to just be on the lookout for pick-pocket thieves.
Following the suggestions of the locals, I made my way to the Radish Festival display area. The local people ghere row radishes and those with large specimens, oddly shaped radishes and those of enough size to carve come to the city to enter them into the festival. I saw radishes that were carved into cars, airplanes, people, nativity scenes and all kinds of other shapes and characters. I’d never thought of radish carving as an art but there were some impressive radish figures.
In the photo below, you can see the radishes on display. To the left of the man in the blue backpack is a huge radish carved into a sitting man, his legs hanging over the edge of the table.
Even though the outside was buzzing with crowds, shoppers, parades, the Radish Festival and never-ending fireworks, the good Catholic people of this area still found time to attend mass. The Cathedral had mass services all day long and into the night and they were packed each time. I ducked into the Cathedral to see how the local people worshiped; it was a beautiful service. I tried my best to follow along as the priest spoke in Spanish.
After mass ended, I went up to the church bell tower and looked down on the Zocalo. Down the side of the road I heard long strings of firecrackers and a band playing and caught the tail end of another of the dozens of parades of the day. Everyone seemed in such a happy and festive mood that it put me in such good spirits. If you’re ever travelling in Mexico during Christmas time, I would certainly recommend a visit to Oaxaca!
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