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Burning Man? Burning Zozobra!

Updated on February 10, 2010

The Scapegoat Alight in Santa Fe

Most everyone has heard of the infamous Burning Man gathering, the celebration that takes place annually in the Black  There, many antics of imagination and creation (not to mention the lovelier side of hedonism!) take place for one week to the benefit of both the participants and the arts community.  Yet have you heard of a far older burning of an effigy in the United States -that of Zozobra?

Zozobra is a 49-foot tall marionette that is burnt every September in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It is made of wood, wire, muslin, and other matierials that allow Zozobra to flail his arms, move his head, and chomp his toothless mouth in fright as he burns, burns, burns to the ground.  He even growls loudly prior to being set ablaze!  Held since 1924 by artist Will Schuster, the ceremony is a large part of an older festival, Fiesta, held in Santa Fe since 1712, making it the oldest civic event in the United States.

In 1963 the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe officially became a part of the Zozobra burning, and has proudly coordinated, built, and set fire to the sad fellow, also known as Old Man Gloom, from a Spanish word, ever since.  At present there are generally around 30,000 people who witness the event, which kicks off Fiesta in that old city. By his annual sacrifice, Zozobra has raised over $ 300,000 since the early 1950's.  This money has gone towards aiding youth projects, funding scholarships, and in paying for camps for children with physical disabilities.

The burning of effigies of human beings goes back millinea, as witnessed in Sir James Frazer's inimitable work "The Golden Bough" and hinted at in more modern tales, such as Tom Robbins' "Jitterbug Perfume" with its discussion of the sacrifice (albeit not burning) of the Bohemian Bean King.  Initially meant to offer the gods a scapegoat for the sins and follies of a community, the burning of effigies has held a spiritual and even secular value to humans into the 21st century.  Yet in the case of Zozobra, unwanted items such as divorce decrees, police reports, and mortgage contracts that have been paid in full, also burn up.  Long live Zozobra -may he burn on.


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