The History of the Burning of Will Shuster’s Zozobra

Zozobra is a hideous but harmless fifty-foot bogeyman marionette. He is a toothless, empty-headed facade. He has no guts and doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. He never wins. He moans and groans, rolls his eyes and twists his head. His mouth gapes and chomps. His arms flail about in frustration. Every year we do him in. We string him up and burn him down in ablaze of fireworks. At last, he is gone, taking with him all our troubles for another whole year. Santa Fe celebrates another victory. Viva la Fiesta! – A.W. Denninger

Will Shuster with ZozobraFiesta has been celebrated in Santa Fe since 1712 by proclamation of the then-governor of the province Jose Chacon Medina Salazar y Villaseor, the marquis of Penuela. It is the oldest civic celebration of its kind in North America. ZOZOBRA, which has gone up in flames every year since Will Shuster created it in 1924, became one of the symbols of the city, a potent reminder of the madcap celebrations of those times and one artist’s generous dedication to his adopted home.

The Zozobra event is staged each year by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe as a fiery and exciting kick-off to the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe during the weekend following Labor Day.

Although the Fiestas celebration dates back to 1712, renowned Santa Fe artist Will Shuster added Zozobra in 1924. Kiwanis became officially involved in 1963. Shuster assigned all rights, title and interest in Zozobra on June 19th, 1964 to The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, which retains exclusive copyright and Trademark to the figure. Thus Kiwanis continues the Zozobra tradition, and as a major fund raiser has become a great way for Santa Feans to participate in community service.

Each year The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe stages the burning of Will Shuster’s Zozobra, kicking off the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe on the weekend following Labor Day. Zozobra centers around the ritual burning in effigy of Old Man Gloom, or Zozobra, to dispel the hardships and travails of the past year. In 2001, Zozobra attracted over 32,000 spectators to view the conflagration ritual and fireworks show at dusk. 

The Fiestas celebration began in 1712 to celebrate an expedition by Don Diego de Vargas, who reconquered the the territory of New Mexico. Zozobra became part of the Fiestas in 1926, and the Kiwanis club began sponsoring the burning in 1963 as its major fundraiser. 

Local artist William Howard Shuster, Jr. – “Will” (1893-1969) conceived and created Zozobra in 1924 as the focus of a private fiesta at his home for artists and writers in the community. 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. Shuster and E. Dana Johnson, a newspaper editor and friend of Shuster’s came up with the name Zozobra, which was defined as “anguish, anxiety, gloom” or in Spanish for “the gloomy one.”

Old Zozobra

Circa 1938

The effigy is a giant animated wooden and cloth marionette that waves its arms and growls ominously at the approach of its fate. A major highlight of the pageant is the fire spirit dancer, dressed in a flowing red costume, who appears at the top of the stage to drive away the white-sheeted “glooms” from the base of the giant Zozobra. The fire dance was created by Jacques Cartier, a former New York ballet dancer and local dance teacher, who performed the role for 37 years. His dance student, James Lilienthal took over the fire spirit role in 1970 and has continued it for 32 years. 

Shuster constructed the figure of Zozobra until 1964, when he gave his detailed model to the Kiwanis Club to continue the tradition. Over the years the effigy has grown larger, reaching a height of 49 feet in 2001. Zozobra is a well crafted framework of preplanned and pre-cut sticks, covered with chicken wire and yards of muslin. It is stuffed with bushels of shredded paper, which traditionally includes obsolete police reports, paid off mortgage papers, and even personal divorce papers.

The festival is so popular that children arrive in the park in the morning to watch Zozobra’s assembly. Spectators, who have paid a nominal fee to watch the event, continuously roar, “Burn him,” until Zozobra is destroyed. Since 1952, the show has raised over $300,000, which the Santa Fe Downtown Kiwanis Foundation has used to provide college scholarships, fund local youth projects and camp fees for physically challenged children. 

Construction of the Zozobra figure and staging the event normally takes place within a three-week period. It is a labor intensive affair requiring over 3,500 volunteer hours. It involves a significant contribution of time, effort and energy from Kiwanis members, some of whom have been staging Zozobra for many years. Planning the event is a year round activity and is done in cooperation with the City of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Fiesta Council.

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….