Every fall 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 moaning voice. Old Man Gloom, as he’s also known, represents the accumulated sorrows of the populace, as in the weeks before the event, he’s stuffed with divorce papers, pictures of ex-girlfriends, hospital gowns, and other anxiety-inducing scraps. Setting this aflame purges these troubles and allows for a fresh start.
This Santa Fe tradition sounds like a medieval rite, but it dates only from the 1920s, when artist Will Shuster—a bit of a local legend who’s also credited with inventing piñon-juniper incense and starting the tradition of citywide bonfires on Christmas Eve—wanted to lighten up the heavily Catholic Fiesta de Santa Fe. Shuster, who had moved to Santa Fe in 1920 to treat his tuberculosis, was inspired by the Mummers Parade from his native Philadelphia, as well as the Yaqui Indians in Tucson, Arizona, who burn Judas in effigy in the week before Easter. A 1926 Santa Fe New Mexican article describes the spectacle Shuster developed, with the help of the Kiwanis Club:
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 … and leaped into a column of many colored flames…. 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.”
Shuster oversaw Zozobra nearly every year until 1964. In the late 1930s, Errol Flynn, in town with Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan to film The Santa Fe Trail, set Zozobra aflame. A few years later, during World War II, the puppet was dubbed Hirohitlomus. In 1950, Zozobra appeared on the New Mexico state float in the Rose Bowl parade and won the national trophy.
Although Zozobra (aka O.M.G.) has a Twitter account these days and accepts worries-to-burn online, the spectacle is roughly unchanged, with dozens of white-clad children playing “glooms,” followed by a “fire dancer” who taunts Zozo until he bursts into flame; fireworks cap it off. It’s a fine sight, and a great cross section of Santa Feans attend. But anyone leery of crowds may prefer to watch from outside the perimeter of the ball field.
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