"Burn him! Burn him!” yells the crowd that ranges from young families to seniors.
All eyes are fixed on the old man, who shakes his head and moans louder. His
eyes roll and his arms flail.
Suddenly, the evening’s darkness is punctured by flaming torches, held high for everyone to see. The crowd roars its approval into the cool September air. he old man sees the flames and real fear takes hold. He lets out a moan that would make coyotes cry.
As the tension builds in the expectant crowd, I think again about how my favorite U.S. destination came to put on such an event…and why I’m downright happy to see the old man burn.
* * *
The story begins more than 80 years ago in a bar—as many good stories do. Back in the 1920s, a group of Bohemian artists came to live in Santa Fe (the seeds that helped Santa Fe grow into the artist center it is today). One of them was William Howard Shuster, Jr.
Legend has it that one night at the Hotel La Fonda bar, Shuster and his artist friends were complaining about a variety of problems. Shuster suggested they each write their problems on a piece of paper. He then collected the notes and surprised everyone by burning them, explaining that those problems were now gone forever.
Later, Shuster coupled that idea with one of the artists’ complaints—that the famous la Fiesta de Santa Fe (held every year since 1712), was becoming too dull and commercialized and needed an exciting, raucous kickoff. Shuster’s creative solution came in 1924 and 1925, when he built a small marionette and burned it in his backyard as the focus of a private fiesta for friends, who were told to let the burning figure take away all their problems from the pat year.
In 1926, the marionette grew larger, went public and
received the name Zozobra from E. Dana Johnson, a
newspaper editor and friend of Shuster. Johnson
found the word in a Spanish dictionary defined as
“anguish, anxiety, gloom, or the gloomy one.” Old
Man Gloom, or Zozobra, was born.
Each year the event grew, with the addition of
fireworks, fire dancers and a bigger and more
elaborate Zozobra. In 1964, Shuster assigned all
rights, title and interest to the Kiwanis Club of Santa
Fe. Kiwanis members help to build and stage the
event, which has become the organization’s largest
annual fundraiser. Money from the entrance fee and
concessions goes to college scholarships and other
benefits for Santa Fe’s youth.
Today, the spectacular burning of the nearly 50-foot-high Zozobra attracts more than 35,000 people. Everyone is supposed to project all their doom, gloom and bad feelings from the past year onto Zozobra. For those who have trouble projecting, they can write their bad juju down on a piece of paper, take it to the stage before the burning and it will be placed inside Zozobra. Within a flash, all the past year’s bad vibes are taken away by Zozobra so people can start again fresh, with a clean slate.
While the event—held the first Thursday evening after Labor Day (Sept. 5, 2013)—is now viewed as the kickoff of Fiesta (Sept. 6-8), it has grown to be much more than that.
“For the community, the burning of Zozobra is a great cathartic experience, where they can spiritually, emotionally, physically express themselves,” says Ray Valdez, a general contractor who has been event producer and builder of Zozobra since 1990.
That deep meaning is not lost on Valdez. “It’s my year-long worry,” he says with a laugh. “When I’m sitting out on the field watching one year’s Zozobra burn, I’m already thinking about next year’s.”
All the facial features are done a year in advance, including the expressive and creative eyes and eyebrows. Valdez constructs the frame of Zozobra in four sections at his house. They’re then moved to a “secret warehouse location,” where Kiwanis members begin to assemble, clothe and paint the figure. A few days before the burning, the public is invited to the warehouse to help stuff Zozobra with more than 90 bags of donated trash paper. Altogether, 200 hundred yards of material and about a half million stitches go into the dress, while the whole marionette weighs more than 1,100 pounds and stands 49 feet, 11 inches tall (a Guinness world record).
What do all those stats really mean?
“You can’t really describe what it means in words to watch the burning of
Zozobra,” says Cary Virtue, a man in his early 40s who was raised in Santa Fe,
now lives in Oakland, Calif., but returns periodically for the event. “It’s a ritual
that you become a part of. It’s something that brings the entire community
Reuben Montes, whose family has been in Santa Fe for literally hundreds of
years, feels the same way. “One of my earliest, fondest memories is sitting
on my father’s shoulders watching Zozobra burn—although all I saw at the
time was a pretty scary monster!” While he believes his two young children
(3 and 1 1/2) are too young yet for the crowds and spectacle, he looks
forward to the day when it becomes their family event.
That feeling of family is continued throughout Fiesta. Begun in 1712 to honor
the reestablishment of the Spanish and Catholic Church in Santa Fe after a
Native American uprising, the nearly 300-year-old religious-based Fiesta has
grown into a weekend that also includes cultural and community-generated
events that engage the entire town. Stalls of arts, crafts, food, and
entertainment attract crowds on the main Plaza, while others are drawn
to attractions such as the Fiesta Fashion Show, the Fiesta Melodrama and
a colorful Pet Parade.
For many, though, it is the burning of Zozobra—this year for the 89th time—that is the weekend’s highlight.
“It’s the largest pagan ritual in the entire United States,” Montes says with a smile. “Where else can you gather with thousands of people to watch a giant marionette burn up and take all your anxieties, fears and dreads with it? It is a really unique and fun event that we cherish here in Santa Fe.”
Jeff Miller is a Denver-based travel writer.
This is NOT “Burning Man”
The 89-year-old burning of Zozobra has nothing to do with Burning Man – a week-long artist event in Nevada that began in 1986. At that event a large statue is burned, but it does not have the soul-cleansing concept behind it that Santa Fe’s marionette does.
If You Go
When: The burning of Zozobra, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013; gates open at 3 p.m., entertainment starts at 4 p.m., burning begins at dusk.
Where: Fort Marcy Park. Within walking distance of the main Plaza. No parking at the venue. Park and Ride will be available from the local malls and the bus terminals. No established seating or bleachers; people sit or stand on the grassy field in front of the stage.
Price: Tickets to the 89th Burning of Will Shuster’s Zozobra are available online at www.ticketsantafe.com $5 in advance; $10 at the venue; children under 10 admitted free.
Suggested accommodations within walking distance of the Plaza: High end: Hotel La Fonda, on the Plaza, $195 to $398 per room, per night, 505-982-5511, www.lafondasantafe.com; the St. Francis Hotel, two blocks from the Plaza, $160 to $400, 505-983-5700, www.hotelstfrancis.com. Moderate: Garrett’s Desert Inn, a clean and respectable motel three blocks from the Plaza, $109 to $149, 505-982-1851, www.garrettsdesertinn.com.
For more information: www.zozobra.com; www.santafe.org; www.santafefiesta.org; www.kwanissantafe.org