Every year, Santa Fe residents watch as their sadness and gloom go up in flames. The crowd cheers as the monster representing their sorrows explodes before crumpling to the ground in defeat.
The fiery tradition dates from 1924, when William Howard Shuster, Jr. and Santa Fe artist and marionette maker Gustave Baumann created an effigy called Zozobra (also known as Old Man Gloom) and the ritual burning. The figure was burned at a private gathering. Two years later, in 1926, Zozobra made his debut at the Fiestas de Santa Fe.
Traditionally, burning Zozobra allows gloom and sadness to be dispelled so the fiesta can begin. The 50-foot-tall, white-clad, dreadfully faced marionette is mounted high above Fort Marcy Park. When you arrive at the park, you’ll see Zozobra set against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He is quiet for a time, though his arms and long dress flap in the breeze.
As the sky darkens, the staging area lights slightly, illuminating Zozobra as he begins to gradually move. The marionette’s slow movements are accompanied by his melodramatic bellows and cries as bells and gongs slowly settle into a rhythm. The effigy begins to move faster, twisting, groaning, and gesticulating with his arms toward the crowd as if summoning you to come forward and throw your troubles at his feet.
At sunset, little “glooms” appear in brilliant white costumes and dance up and down the steps and across the stage at Zozobra’s feet. As the ritual progresses, Zozobra’s roars increasing. The crowd chants and screams, “Burn Him! Burn Him! Burn Him!” as he growls and moves wildly. All the while, the Fire Dancer, the one who will set him on fire, dances before him.
His growls turn to agonizing screams as the Fire Spirit dances and throws flames at Zozobra’s feet. He begins to scream violently as he is set on fire and begins to burn. Fireworks burst forth from within the marionette, burning him completely, and he crashes to the ground. He then becomes eerily silent, no more than a pile of smoldering remains, the city’s gloom and doom defeated for yet another year.