Burning Old Man Gloom

Here in Santa Fe we have a very unique way of kicking off our annual fiestas.  Half the town and a bunch of  tourists, about 20,000 – 30,000 people in all, gather onto a baseball field to watch a fifty foot marionette burn.  That’s what we do for fun in Santa Fe, we all get together to burn a giant puppet- BURN BABY!  BURN!!

Walking to Zozobra

Fiestas de Santa Fe is a week long, town-wide celebration at the end of the growing season.  Supposedly it’s the oldest of its kind in North America!  It started way back in 1712 but let’s fast forward a few centuries.  In 1924 a Santa Fe artist named Will Shuster decided add some spice to his fiestas celebration.  It started at his home as a kinda private fiesta kick off.  The idea was to burn an effigy to say good-bye to all of last year’s bad juju.   Those crazy artist types are always up to some sort of funny business.  His inspiration for Zozobra came from the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico; an effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, was led around the village on a donkey and later burned.   Schuster thought burning a scapegoat sounded like fun so he enlisted a puppeteer friend to help him build a four foot high marionette.  The night before the Fiestas began they stuffed him full of fireworks, sentenced him to death with lots of pomp and circumstance and lit him on fire much to the satisfaction of his backyard celebrants.  Shuster and another friend, E. Dana Johnson, a newspaper editor came up with the name Zozobra, which in Spanish means, the ‘gloomy one’.

Zozobra 2011

After a couple of years word had spread about the burning of Zozobra and he was officially included into the tradition of the Fiestas.  The Kiwanis Club took over the whole Zozobra production and his annual incineration became a major fund raiser for them.   He grew a little bit each year (fire! we need more fire!!)  until he became the fifty foot monster that he is today.  Part of the fun of Zozobra is that you can write down anything that has got you down and have it stuffed in him in order to have your personal gloom burned away.

Molly:  In the early nineties when I first started going to Zozobra it was a big party.  It felt like half the state of NM was being crushed into Fort Marcy Park and then funneled over to the Plaza to party afterwards.  It was CRAZY!  

Mike:  I didn’t start going until Dumpling was a baby but I heard the stories.  Didn’t they originally hold it on Friday nights?

Molly:  Yep. I remember one year when I lived just a few blocks from the Plaza a bunch of my friends came up, we went to Zozobra and then bar hopped for the rest of the night.  Some of my friends stayed drunk for days.

Mike:  Yeah, the good ole’ days!    I don’t remember exactly when or the particulars but about ten years ago some dude shot and killed another guy after Zozobra right on the Plaza.

Molly:  It was pretty terrible.  There’s nothin’ like a little violence to get things changed.  Since then the city council has made some changes to make it into a more ‘family oriented event’.  Now the event is on Thursday night, they don’t allow alcohol and the party on the Plaza is no more.  You still get your town drunks making an appearance but the security is pretty tight and they seem to be stiffling any bru-ha-ha that starts up pretty quickly.

It was a great night.  We made our way to the field and did a quick search for friends.  We claimed a spot for ourselves near the pitcher’s mound and waited for the festivities to begin.  One thing about Zozobra is that there is a lot of hanging out.  They have live music and a few booths but it’s really about standing around talking to friends, making new ones and people watching.

Molly:  My friend, Jackie (AKA, the Zumba Queen) lead a huge Zumba flash mob in a quick dance to ‘Un Mes’ by Mara.  I’ve never been part of a flash mob before although someone close to me who will remain nameless used to participate in some naked mob photos on the streets of NY!

Zozobra Zumba Pass

Mike:  While you were up dancing with your lady friends Dumpling was flash mob dancing back here with us.  She was great!

Molly:  It’s fun to hear what the newbies think about Zozobra.  When my girlfriends and I took a cruise around the park you could overhear people’s exclamations, ‘I’ve never seen a puppet so big!’, ‘This is the coolest thing ever!’.

The evening  was pretty windy.  Once it got dark the fire department shot off some fireworks to test the winds.  We all looked at each other wondering if they would call off the burn.  The cover band kept playing and playing.  Eventually they ran out of material and performed songs they had done earlier in the evening.  After some more delay the show  finally started. The Judge came out and sentenced Zozobra to a fiery death.

Zozobra sentenced to death

Zozobra growls and moans over the loudspeakers, the crowd is yelling, ‘BURN HIM! BURN HIM!’,  the fire dancer moves around with her baby ghouls (little kids vive every year to dance onstage as a ghoul), more fire dancers come out and finally fireworks come shooting out of Zozobra making for a very dramatic BOOM!  He begins burning from the inside out until he’s completely ablaze.  It’s creepy and amazing all in one.  All fifty feet of him is on fire, he stops moaning and stops moving, just burns….he is still…looking like one of those Day of the Dead skeletons.  Suddenly he collapses!  The crowd screams and hollers then it slowly quiets watching the flames die down as a grand finale of fireworks go off celebrating our triumph once again over Old Man Gloom.

That, my friends, is how we do it in Santa Fe.  VIVA LA FIESTAS!!  QUE VIVA!!!

Burn Baby!

To learn more about the history of Zozobra and how the puppet is made you can see a video here.

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