Good-Bye, Old Man Gloom!
Every fall, on the weekend after Labor Day, a raucous chant fills the air in Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy Park: “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!” It’s not a witch hunt, but the ritual torching of Zozobra, a 50-foot-tall marionette with long, grasping arms, glowering eyes, and a growly voice.
Zozobra, whose name comes from the Spanish word for gloom or anxiety, is said to represent the accumulated worries, sorrows, and chronic problems of the populace; burning him to ashes purges these troubles and allows for a fresh start.
This type of burning ritual has ancient roots, but the tradition in Santa Fe dates only from the 1920s, when artist Will Shuster (a.k.a. “Shus”) and a few friends wanted to liven up the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe. Shuster, who had moved to Santa Fe in 1920 to treat the tuberculosis he’d developed in World War I, was inspired by the Mummers Parade, a fixture in his native Philadelphia. He also drew on the traditions of the Yaqui Indians in Tucson, Arizona, who perform a ritual burning of an effigy of Judas during Semana Santa, the week preceding Easter.
The first Zozobra, built in 1924, was just 18 feet high, with a disproportionately small head. By 1926, Shuster had perfected the scale and developed the spectacle. A Santa Fe New Mexican article from that year relates:
Zozobra…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.… [Then] red fires blazed at the foot of the figure…and leaped into a column of many colored flames. As it burned,…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.”
Shus oversaw the building of Zozobra nearly every year until 1964, when he ceded responsibility to the Kiwanis Club. In the late 1930s, Errol Flynn, in town with Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan to film TheSanta Fe Trail, set Zozobra aflame. A few years later, during World War II, the puppet’s face had the features of the era’s baddies — and was called Hirohitlomus. In 1950, Zozobra appeared on the New Mexico state float in the Rose Bowl parade and won the national trophy.
Shus, who died in 1969, is now a local legend — he’s also credited with inventing piñon-juniper incense and starting the tradition of citywide bonfires on Christmas Eve. And thanks in part to another of the artist’s innovations — collecting and stuffing the figure with outdated police reports, pictures of ex-girlfriends, papers from paid-off mortgages, and other anxiety-inducing scraps of paper — the 30,000 people who gather to watch the conflagration are happy to see Zozobra go up in smoke.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition