The Burning of Old Man Gloom in Santa Fe, New Mexico
What Is Zozobra?
Thursday evening, at dusk, the popular Zozobra event takes place at Fort Marcy Park, located just a few blocks from the historic Santa Fe Plaza. This is the annual ceremony of the burning of Old Man Gloom (pictured right). Zozobra, the inspiration of artist Will Shuster, was introduced as part of the Fiesta events in 1926.
Old Man Gloom first appeared as a six-foot puppet, but the Zozobra figure has since grown to be over 50 feet tall. Made of muslin and stuffed with shredded paper, Zozobra is an eerie, groaning, flailing character, who looks to be part ghost and part monster.
Amid fireworks and the ceremonial dances of ghosts and fire, Zozobra is set ablaze by torches. As Old Man Gloom burns, it is said that with him go the feelings of gloom and doom from the past year. The sound of the groaning Zozobra can be heard throughout the city and for miles around.
The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe became officially involved with Zozobra in 1963. Will Shuster assigned all rights to the Kiwanis Club on June 19, 1964, and to this day they retain the exclusive copyright and trademark to the figure. As a major annual fundraiser, Zozobra has become a fun way for the citizens of Santa Fe (and visitors from around the world) to participate in community service. Since 1952, Zozobra has raised over $300,000, which the Santa Fe Downtown Kiwanis Foundation has used to provide college scholarships, fund local youth projects, and provide camp fees for physically challenged children.
History of Zozobra
Local artist William Howard Shuster, Jr. conceived and created Zozobra in 1924, as the highlight of a private party at his home for artists and writers in the Santa Fe area. He was inspired by the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico, where an effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, is led around the village on a donkey, and ultimately set afire. Shuster and his friend, E. Dana Johnson, a local newspaper editor, came up with the name Zozobra, which was defined as: “anguish, anxiety, gloom,” or Spanish for “the gloomy one.”
The effigy used in Zozobra is a giant wooden and cloth marionette that waves its arms and growls ominously prior to its demise. A major highlight of the Zozobra 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 “Gloomies” from the base of Old Man Gloom. The fire dance was originated by Jacques Cartier, a former New York ballet dancer and local dance teacher, who performed the role for 37 years. One of his students, James Lilienthal, took over the Fire Dancer role in 1970, and has continued performing it for over 30 years.
In a video presentation at the New Mexico History Museum, Cartier talks about his experience over the years as the Fire Dancer. “It damn near killed me half a dozen times,” he says. “And I even broke both my ankles; thank God, not at the same time.” Cartier also supervised the little “Gloomies.” He says, “The idea of Zozobra grew out of a gang of Santa Fe deep-thinkers who met in something called ‘Society of Quien Sabe.’ They met once a month and membership was based on how well you could tell yarns.”
Harold Gans, the “voice” of Zozobra, for over 30 years, is also interviewed on the museum video. “I’ve been involved in this my whole adult life,” he says. “It’s something nobody else does.”
Will Shuster personally oversaw the construction of the Zozobra figure until 1964, when he gave his detailed model to the Kiwanis Club so that they could continue the tradition. Over the years the effigy has grown from the original size of a few feet to a height of over 50 feet, as the celebration made its way into the new century.
Behind The Scenes of Old Man Gloom
Construction of the Zozobra figure and staging of 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 of the event is a year-round activity and is done in cooperation with the City of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Fiesta Council.
Old Man Gloom is a well-crafted framework of pre-planed and pre-cut sticks, covered with chicken wire and yards of muslin. It is stuffed with bushels of shredded paper, which traditionally includes old police reports, paid-off mortgage papers, divorce papers, and/or stories Santa Feans put on paper about their tales of woe from the year just past. And a “gloom box” is located near the stage, for those who wish to throw in mementos of their troubles up until te show begins. It is the hope of all who contribute to the inner stuffing of Zozobra, that their bad luck, sorrows and unhappiness will disappear into the smoke of the burned puppet. Sometimes shoppers in the Santa Fe area will see tin cans with pieces of paper next to them in local stores. Anyone is welcome to write about whatever is bothering them. These small papers are put in the cans, and eventually they are all collected and put at Zozobra’s feet to be burned alongside him.
The Pageantry of the Event
The festival is one of the most anticipated events of the season, with visitors coming from every corner of the globe to experience the celebration. School children, on planned field trips, arrive in the park in the morning to watch the assembly of Zozobra.
A crowd begins gathering for the rain-or-shine event around noon, and food and drink are available from numerous vendors. Alcohol is strictly prohibited, and bags are searched to make sure that none is smuggled into the park. Pets and lawn chairs are also not allowed, so your best bet is to bring a blanket and settle in for a picnic.
By 6:00 p.m. Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy Park is filling with teenagers cruising for friends and families socializing on blankets. For many this is a tradition: parents with small children remember when they first saw the burning of Zozobra as youngsters. There’s a definite air of fun and camaraderie.
An impressive ceremony of Native American, Spanish and other costumed characters of Santa Fe history begin the ceremony at twilight, with dancing and music beginning the act of Zozobra’s fate.
On an elevated structure at one side of the park stands that year’s Zozobra. He has big ears and wears a bow-tie and a scowling expression. He looks like he is part clown, part monster. Over the past two weeks, the massive paper effigy has been constructed in a “secret location“. Before he’s strung up, his head and part of his insides are laced with explosives. Once mounted, he’s secured by stout steel cables to a 55-foot metal pole and a 12-foot crossbar. The steel wires attached to his arms, head, and mouth allow the puppet’s movements to be manipulated from the ground. Although Zozobra is in fact a marionette, until darkness falls, he remains a motionless, sullen, spectator towering above the lively festivities.
It’s now dusk, and the feeling of anticipation is growing in the park. Twenty-four Santa Fe children draped in white sheets appear as “Gloomies” to dance around the feet of the effigy. While tom-toms thunder on huge kettledrums, the children are led by the Queen of Gloom. They have come to plead for Zozobra’s life, but the creature is doomed.
A group of Fire Dancers appear, their purpose being to tease and annoy Old Man Gloom. He starts to move his arms, open and close his mouth, and the moaning begins. A single adult Fire Dancer performs a solo, ending in the lighting of the torch to the hem of Zozobra’s skirt.
The flames crawl quickly up Zozobra, setting off the explosives inside him, while a blaze of fireworks erupts overhead. The colorful display lasts for several minutes after Old Man Gloom has been completely destroyed. The crowd utters forth the last of their cheers, and make their way to the Santa Fe Plaza, where, for the rest of the evening, bars and restaurants overflow with happy celebrants.
If you plan on attending the festivities and need to stay in Santa Fe overnight, be aware that Zozobra’s popularity means you’ll have to book a hotel room well in advance, at least three months and sometimes up to a full year! Tickets (which cost $10 if purchased in advance and $10 at the gate) do not sell out, however, and are available up until “burn time” (at dusk). For more information, visit the Will
The First Zozobra
A description of the first public burning of Zozobra appeared 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 were ignited, red fires blazed at the foot of the figure, and shortly a match was applied to its base, with fire leaping into a column of many colored flames.
As it burned, and the encircling fires blazed brighter, there was a staccato of exploding fireworks from the figure and round about. 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.” The crowd then 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.