By Meghan E. Gattignolo
The holiday season is celebrated with a wide variety of customs and celebrations throughout the world. Some traditions have long-reaching historical roots that have survived through the decades and reveal a little about the people who celebrate them. Here are a few that may be new to you.
Day of the Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, 2006
Courtesy of Drew Leavy via Flickr
The Night of the Radishes – Mexico
Radishes aren’t exactly go-to holiday decor in the United States. In Mexico, specifically in the town of Oaxaca, radishes are everywhere for one whole night. December 23 is better known as Noche de Rábanos, or “the night of the radishes,” and while you wouldn’t believe it, people really tap into their sculpting muse for radish-carving contests!
This odd tradition started in 1897 as a friendly competition between produce vendors to make their wares more attractive than those around them. The marketing tactic caught on in popularity and blew up from there.
Why radishes, though? Why not potatoes, carrots, or some other root vegetable? The legend goes that one year in Oaxaca, the spring radish harvest was so abundant that an entire field was left unharvested. A monk decided to dig some up in December, only to learn the radishes had grown to monstrous sizes. He brought them to the market to share the amusing vegetable with everyone he knew.
The radish-carving celebration not only preserves the area’s pre-Columbian carving traditions, but also recognizes the Spanish history and influence by using produce introduced from Europe.
Christmas Tree Spider – Ukraine
If you attended Noel Night this year, you may already have been introduced to this one. In Ukraine and other parts of eastern Europe, you may find bejeweled spider ornaments or glittering webs hanging from Christmas trees. Why is that? In this part of the world, a different kind of legend colors the Christmas customs of young and old alike.
While in the United States we look for pickles and elves on shelves, Ukrainians tell the legend of the Christmas tree spider. The story goes that a family brought a tree home for Christmas, but couldn’t afford to decorate it. When they woke up on Christmas morning, they found that a friendly spider hiding in the branches had decorated the tree for them, with spider webs that sparkled in the morning sunlight. We may recall this story when we decorate our own trees with tinsel.
La Befana by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1821
Etching on laid paper
La Befana doll
Courtesy of ho vista nina volare via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
La Befana – Italy
We can have ghosts in A Christmas Carol, surely there’s room for witches during the holiday season as well? In Italy, witches aren’t just for Halloween. La Belfana is a good witch who comes to spread more cheer before winter break ends.
Although technically still part of the Christmas celebration, Befana’s visits come later in the season, on the night of January 5, the eve of the Epiphany. Just like St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana visits late at night and hides presents in children’s stockings. Most importantly, she sweeps up after herself with the broom she carries before she leaves, making her a gift to parents, too.
Happy holidays from the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center! Create your own unique holiday traditions by including a visit to the Museum! Don’t forget to check out our Vintage Holiday Collection in the Lobby, featuring items from holidays past kept in our permanent collection, as well as the Snowflake Special in the Huff & Puff Model Train exhibit before the season is over! Also, check out our large porcelain village, full of scenes guaranteed to give you holiday nostalgia. After the family is done opening presents, keep the cheer going with Family Art Saturday on December 30. The Customs House Museum & Cultural Center is open Tuesday – Saturday from 10am-5pm and Sundays from 1-5pm.
Ukraine Tree, Chicago Museum of Science & Industry, 2011
Courtesy of Marty Gabel via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.