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The Burning of Zozobra

Updated on March 19, 2009

Old Man Gloom

Burning the effigy of Zozobra symbolizes the purging of fears and worries; in essence, freeing yourself from the clutches of last years problems. During annual the Fiestas de Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, usually held on the second week of September, people come to Santa Fe for the burning of Zozobra (pronounced: zoe-ZOE-bruh). The name Zozobra, is loosely defined as "anguish, anxiety, gloom" or by Spanish translation for "the gloomy one."

Zozobra is a giant boogyman,is the embodiment of hardships and gloom. An almost 50ft. tall marionette made out of wood, chicken wire, and yards of muslin fabric. From the top of his toothless, empty head down to his footless bottom Old Man Gloom is stuffed full inside bushels of shredded paper, which include obsolete police reports. If you want too, anyone is welcome to drop-off their personal "gloom" by putting it down on paper and dropping it into the local newspaper's, "The Santa Fe Reporter" gloom box the weeks leading up to the Fiesta. Many people put legal papers, and paid off mortgages in the gloom box as well. And watch all the hardships, disappointments, and troubles go up into flames, in what Santa Fe claims to be  "oldest continuous community celebration in the U.S."

As the dark of night begins, small fires are lit in front of Zozobra . A Fire Spirit Dancer in a red costume and small white "glooms" (children dressed in white) start dancing in front of Old Man Gloom. The Fire Spirit Dancer dance is an attempt to frighten away the "glooms". With all the excitement, and ruckus building from the spectators, Zozobra is finally set on fire. As the torture of the flames soar up the gaint's tormented body the arms start to move up and down and the heard turns from side to side. Fireworks light the night sky as Zozobra's mouth opens and starts to moan and groan, the anguishing cries keep getting louder as the flames engulf his entire body (this can be scary to children), as the people watch, another year's worth of troubles burn away; they celebrate and cheer. 

After Zozobra has been destroyed, the street leading from the park to the Plaza is closed to traffic so the now unburdened can walk to the Plaza to dance, eat, and celebrate long into the night.  

The festival is so popular that spectators arrive to the park in the morning, just to watch Zozobra's assembly. Since 1952, the  burning Zozbra has helped the Santa Fe Downtown Kiwanis Foundation raise money, used to provide college scholarships, fund local youth projects and camp fees for physically challenged children.

The construction of the Zozobra and the setting up for the event normally takes about three weeks. The event's labor requires over 3,500 volunteer hours. Planning the event, for the burning of Old Man Gloom is a year round project, done in cooperation with the City of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Fiesta Council.

Fiestas de Santa Fe has been celebrated in Santa Fe, New Mexico since 1712 making it the oldest civic celebration of its kind in North America. Zozobra, has been burning up annually since Will Shuster created it in 1924. The Burning of Zozobra as became one of the identifiable symbols of the city, and one artist's gift to his adopted home.

Zozobra Documentary Part 1

The Counter-Fiesta Birth Of Zozobra

Fiestas de Santa Fe have been held since 1712 to celebrate the Spanish retaking of the city in 1692 by Don Diego de Vargas from the Pueblo tribes who had occupied the city since the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

The story goes that while planning his reoccupation of Santa Fe from the Pueblo Indians. Don Diego De Vargas prayed to La Conquistadora (a 29-inch wood carved statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, originally brought to Santa Fe in 1625 by a missionary.). He prayed to the Virgin Mother, to bless them for the successful victory in re-entering the town. In December 1693, De Vargas led his triumphant forces back into the city of Santa Fe without a single drop of blood shed, crediting the hand the Madonna for his blessed victory. (the La Conquistadora is the oldest statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States. She was crowned in 1954 by Cardinal Francis Spellman and again in 1960 by Pope John XXIII.) Lt. Governor Paez Hurtado influenced city officials to make an offical proclamation for an annual celebration commemorating the peaceful 1692 resettlement. In 1712 the then-governor of the province Jose Chacon Medina Salazar y Villaseor, the marquis of Penuela, by proclamation set forth the first Fiesta de Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe Fiesta was later re-created in 1919 by a group of Anglo community leaders. The plan was to attract Santa Fe's visitors and residents back to its mythic past before the Anglo insurgence and influence made it look like any other American city. The "Santa Fe Style" was made up by Anglo civic leaders to produce a unique identity for the city. Santa Fe combined its Native American, Spanish and Anglo history. After all, Santa Fe was one of the oldest European settlements in the United States. It had a rich and diverse native heritage, full of ancient ruins and living pueblos, ornate pottery, intricately patterned weaving, etc. The Spanish legacy gave Santa Fe it's charm, traditions, fiestas, deep religious convictions and ceremonies. The Anglos just bundled it all up, nice and pretty; so America come, and believe they were a part of some kind of cultural experience. Yessiree...the great American cultural illusion.

The Santa Fe revival of its community Fiesta was important as well in promoting the myth of tri-cultural harmony. The myth of three cultures living in harmony, but each group was still distinctive; gave Santa Fe's image the aura of progressiveness and tolerance. Alledgely, the Fiesta gave the residents an opportunity to smooth over the ethnic tensions. This myth is today still quite actively promoted.

As with all things in America, what began with good intensions, by 1919 the Fiestas be came  less of a display of a community celebration and turned into more entertainment to attract tourism. Criticism began of the Fiesta almost began immediately, claiming  it was only for those who could afford to pay admission. The Fiesta glorified the bloodless re-capture of Santa Fe in 1682 by de Vargas (without mention of the bloody re-conquest of 1693). Attending the Fiesta included a mass, a procession, and a re-enactment of the battles with the surrender of the Pueblo Indians.

A year later local artist Will Shuster, one of the Cinco Pintores, a local group of "radical" artists, was already voicing his resentment, because the Fiesta became only for those who could afford it. Shuster once an editorial in 1950, that explained his negative feelings about the Fiesta and the beginning of his "revolutionary protest fiesta" that began in 1926.

The Editorial Written By Will Shuster:

"That year [1920], at Fiesta time, a high stockade was built of aspen poles extending from each end of the Governors’ Palace across Palace Avenue and along the north side of the Plaza. It completely enclosed the street and the Plaza sidewalk. A long grandstand was erected on the Plaza side facing the Old Palace. Admission gates were placed at each end. It was gay and beautiful inside. The Fiesta was held within that compound.

Around the outside of the stockade, peering through the cracks between the aspen poles were the less fortunate children and gente of the town watching THEIR FIESTA. The gaiety was all inside. …

I can recall the feeling of resentment that surged up in me over that Fiesta. It set off a chain reaction which has set me against that sort of thing and has made me stubbornly and consistently fight it."

Burning Resentment

Will Shuster and several of his fellow artists, the Cinco Pintores, came up with the idea of a Counter-Fiesta, and held it just seven years after the Santa Fe Fiesta was started. This "Counter-Fiesta" was birth of Zozobra.

Will Wrote About How It Came Together:

"In the year 1712 the Marquis de Penuela published a proclamation of Fiesta in commemoration of the re-conquest of New Mexico by Don Diego de Vargas.

Two hundred and some odd years later, E. Dana Johnson , who was then the editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican, and I got together to hatch out a show for fiesta. It was not the Fiesta of the Marquis de Penuela, but actually amounted to a revolutionary protest fiesta, staged by the artists and writers of the community and was called the El Pasatiempo. It was protest against the regular Fiesta which was becoming dull and commercialized. Between us, we worked out the general idea of the show. Dana dug up that wonderful name Zozobra meaning "the gloomy one" from a Spanish dictionary, and I got to work on the details of the show with a budget of fifty dollars."

That is the reason that Zozobra has always been a free show for the whole town.

The Counter- Feista, started to succeed were Santa Fe Fiesta had failed. Will's fiesta gave a sense of community and union. This Counter-Fiesta included bands in concert, the community singing and dancing in the streets of the plaza. It included a children’s animal show, and the popular "Hysterical Pageant" (not historical paeant), where people from all wrungs of the social ladder put on the clothes from their heirloom trunks, made floats and costumes, and decorated their cars, horses, and burros for this parade. They parodied historic figures, tourists, and mocked tourist stereotypes. This is how it all started with Zozobra, and the melding of a community began to evolve.

Today the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe builds Zozobra and burns the giant boogeyman at Fort Marcy Park for more than 50,000 people annually. The burning of  the almost 50ft tall, Old Man Gloom, is the beginning of the three day fiesta that includes a traditional mass at St. Francis Cathedral; a reenactment of Don Diego de Vargas return to the city; a Children's Pet Parade; and the Historical/Hysterical Parade.

Zozobra Documentary Part 2

Will Shuster and The Cinco Pintores

William Howard Shuster, Jr. - "Will" (1893-1969) was part of a group of "radical" local artists known as the Cinco Pintores. Will conceived and created Zozobra in 1924 as part of a fiesta at his home for artists and writers in the community. He found his inspiration for his celebration from a Holy Week celebration were the effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, was led around the village on a donkey and later burned. Will, along with members of the Cinco Pintores and E. Dana Johnson, (a friend and newspaper editor) came up with the name Zozobra, which was defined in Spanish as "the gloomy one." Shuster constructed Zozobra for Santa Fe until 1964.

After 1964 Will gave his detailed model on building Zozobra to the Kiwanis Club, who continue the tradition. Zozobra is a  near 50ft. tall framework of preplanned and pre-cut sticks, covered with chicken wire and yards of muslin; that is stuffed with bushels of shredded paper.

Zozobra symbolizes the fears and worries being burned away, freeing the individual from their burdensome grip. Will Shuster's gift to his adopted community was not only the burning away of gloom, but even if for a brief moment, he gave Santa Fe, New Mexico a sense of community.

Zozobra - The First Burning Man circa: 1991

The First Public Burning Of Zozobra September 2,1926

A description of the first public Zozobra burning appears in the September 2,1926, edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican:

"Following vespers at the Cathedral, a long procession headed by the Conquistadores Band marched to the vacant space back of the city hall, where Zozobra, a hideous effigy figure 20 feet high, produced by the magic wand of Will Shuster, stood in ghastly silence illuminated by weird green fires. While the band played a funeral march, a group of Kiwanians in black robes and hoods stole around the figure, with four others seated before the green fires.

When City Attorney Jack Kennedy on behalf of the absent Mayor, solemnly uttered the death sentence of Zozobra, with Isadoro Armijo as interpreter, and fired several revolver shots at the monster, the green fires changed to red, the surrounding ring of bonfires was ignited, red fires blazed at the foot of the figure and shortly a match was applied to its base and leaped into a column of many colored flames.

As it burned the encircling fires blazed brighter, there was a staccato of exploding fireworks from the figure and round about, and throwing off their black robes the spectators emerged in gala costume, joining an invading army of bright-hued harlequins with torches in a dance around the fires as the band struck up "La Cucaracha." Following which the crowd marched back between bonfires lining the streets to the armory and the big baile was on. It brought out the biggest crowd of native merrymakers seen here for years...."

The Burning Of Zozobra 2008

"Fire On High" by Electric Light Orchestra


Submit a Comment

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    For being a 2008 video the last video post is not that good quality. BlondePoet don't fear Old Man Gloom. He gets burned to the ground in the end.

  • blondepoet profile image


    9 years ago from australia

    I tell you what I would not want to meet him in a dark alley.Excuse the expression, but he would scare the shit out of kids. Those noises he makes is pretty freaky lol.Yet he also captivates something in me. The things people do for traditions. Really well done James is the last video meant to have no picture. I am scared to go to my bedroom tonight Lmao

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Yeaaah...Sadie's! I used to need my Sadie's Carne Adovada fix twice a month. Hurricanes disaster burrito was killer. I used to work at Garduno's on Academy... It was probably the best days in memory.

    New Mexico is still one of the best places I have ever lived.

  • Laughing Mom profile image

    Laughing Mom 

    9 years ago

    Oooh! The green chili!! We roasted our own and froze enough for the whole year. I wish we could do that again! And real mexican food at Sadie's. You can't find anything like it around here.

    Now I'm homesick......Thanks for the memories!

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Ashley Victoria thanks for driving by to check it out, but truthfully words can't do justice to experiwncing this for yourself. Zozobra is just an amazing event.

    Laughing Mom ...I'm with you. I miss living in New Mexico and experiencing the Land of Enchantment firsthand. I really miss in October the smell of green chile roasting in the air. Thank you for adding in a bit of your personal experience.

  • Laughing Mom profile image

    Laughing Mom 

    9 years ago

    I know it's ritualistic and such, but I always enjoyed going to see it! Lots of fun, and LOTS of people!!

  • AshleyVictoria profile image


    9 years ago from Los Angeles

    St. James - It's always great to learn something new. This hub is so interesting, and the pictures and videos compliment it nicely!

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    More people have heard of "Burning Man" but this is the oldest burning effigy in America. What makes it even stranger is that Zozobra is a marionette. So he moves and screams... its such a strange site, but once you see it for yourself... You want to see it every year.

    I lived in Albuquerque, NM for a number of years. I miss the southwest. So of the most beautiful and special part of America.

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    What a great Hub - and fantastic subject matter. You have introduced me to something new - I always appreciate that. Thanks. You are a great writer.

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you Kimberly! I am always looking for other ways to market... I did recieve your email (much thanks) I will be jumping on those sites soon.

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    Wow! Are you looking at other ways to market your writing? Did you get the email I sent to you re. the 101 best websites?


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