As we walked the Santa Fe plaza this past Labor Day weekend, the town was buzzing with excitement for the kick-off of the Fiestas de Santa Fe … particularly for something called Zozobra. We’d seen news clips of this on TV through the years and must admit that it looked crazy bizarre with a huge paper marionette being burned to the ground as it moaned and grumbled, and a crowd of thousands chanting “Burn him ! Burn him!” Only now that we’ve seen it in person do we understand the significance and why the people of New Mexico look forward to it all year long to take their woes away.
We stopped to chat with locals to learn that Zozobra is an effigy in which people write their problems of all sorts (health issues, employment and money concerns, heartbreak, political worries, troubles they’d like to forget) on pieces of paper that are stuffed into Zozobra a.k.a. Old Man Gloom … basically turning him into an enormous package of bad karma. On the Friday of Labor Day weekend everyone gathers to watch him burn to the ground, taking their worries away with the flames and smoke. It’s like a New Year’s resolution to begin anew, only in Santa Fe they incinerate the negativity of the last year in a towering firestorm, just to be sure their troubles are scorched and done with! When Zozobra smolders and crashes to the ground the fireworks light up and the fiestas begin!
A tradition that originated in 1924, it was created by the quintessential Santa Fe artist and free spirit, Will Shuster. At first Zozobra was a homely 6-foot effigy made to entertain friends and family. Over the decades, he has morphed into a towering 50-foot creature of gloom, and is one of the world’s tallest fully functioning marionettes. He is constructed of wood, wire, poultry netting, lights, muslin, nails, screws, pulleys, plywood, shredded paper, spray paint, pizza pans (for his eyes) and duct tape. Today Old Man Gloom draws a crowd of 50 – 60 thousand.
The assembly of Zozobra began early Friday morning as Mr. Gloom was brought in on several flatbed trailers, laid out on the ground, and masterful craftsmen began putting the pieces together. A fireworks outfit installed an array of colorful explosives on the hilltop where Zozobra was perched, as well as inside his structure.
Zozobra, whose name comes from a Spanish expression meaning “the gloomy one,” is one of New Mexico’s most iconic and treasured characters.
Gloom Boxes are stationed around the area (and in other parts of the city) for people to write their disappointments, then drop them into the boxes to be stuffed into Zozobra before he is set ablaze by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe (which they have done annually since 1964.)
People started to show up around 8:30am to claim their seats and watch the hoisting up of Old Man Gloom 50 feet into the air by the PNM trucks and crew. School children were bussed in to watch the event, and it was big excitement when the kids began to scream for Zozobra to be pulled into his lofty position.
The rest of the day was spent fine tuning with the coordinators, a multitude of volunteers, and the city’s finest all working together to provide a one-of-a kind event. The security check points were tight with all of the entryways blocked off. No alcohol was permitted. This really was a safe, family friendly event. Music acts performed on the main stage, and vendors sold cute souvenirs and Zozobra piñatas, while others offered bbq, grilled corn, turkey legs, chilled horchata and other carnival fare.
As the evening set in, the Royal Court of the Santa Fe Fiesta appeared onstage to pay tribute to the monster.
At 9pm the Beach Ball Toss fired up the crowd, and then the singing of the National Anthem was performed by acapella group Duke City Sound.
Then it’s lights out and the fire dancer in a stunning red outfit, performed by Helene Luna, began to dance around Zozobra.
As the story goes, the creature of bad karma believes this is a party to honor him, when in fact he has been lured to this place where he will be burned to the ground to release all of the glooms.
Eyes aglow, he scowled at the crowd, growling and bellowing. The puppeteers waved his arms menacingly as the fire dancer ended her performance and the crowd began to chant “Burn Him, Burn Him!”
Old Man Gloom met his fate as the colorful fireworks blasted all around! The crowd cheered and soon his burnt frame crashed to the ground, eliciting an enormous cheer! This is when the fiestas begin. A time to be joyous and full of hope as the worries have been taken away and Zozobra turns to a pile of ashes.
Truly a ‘had to be there’ event to really understand and describe, and we hope we’ve captured enough for you to embrace the spirit of Zozobra. We put a few glooms in the box and have to admit, when he went ablaze we were cheering along with everyone and the future seemed brighter!
We can’t wait for next year!
Wishing you Happy Discoveries!
-Mr.D and Amy
Note: Thank you Ray, Lisa, the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, Western Enterprises, Volunteers, PNM and the City of Santa Fe’s Police and Fire Departments for putting on what was truly an amazing event. You were right, we wouldn’t be able to describe the experience it if we hadn’t been there to see it for ourselves.
Zozobra Pinatas by El Paisano Beef Jerky (the Food Truck with Viga Beams, you can’t miss it.)