Zozobra: Santa Fe's Yearly Incineration of Sorrows

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky  | 
Flames and pyrotechnics erupt from the head and index finger of Zozobra, a 50-foot-tall marionette representing anguish, anxiety and gloom, during the 96th Annual Burning of Zozobra at Fort Marcy Park on Sept. 4, 2020, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Due to statewide restrictions on large gatherings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the event was held without a crowd and streamed online. Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Do you ever wish you could just burn all your troubles to the ground and start fresh? Then you might want to consider a move to Santa Fe.

That's because the New Mexico capital has an annual tradition built around the very concept of setting your sorrows ablaze. The sacrificial subject of this fiery ritual is a giant, animated effigy known affectionately as Zozobra or Old Man Gloom, and residents have been cheering on his flaming demise for almost a century.


Old Man Gloom goes up in flames at the 93rd Annual Burning of the Zozobra on Sept. 1, 2017.
Adria Malcolm/Getty Images

The Burning of Zozobra takes place annually on the Friday of Labor Day weekend at Fort Marcy Park in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in 2021 the lighting will occur on Friday, September 3. The show is slated to start at 9:10 p.m. sharp, though weather conditions may require an earlier or later start time. But, never fear, according to officials, Zozobra is a rain or shine event and the burn will happen regardless of the weather.


The Beginnings of a Fiery Tradition

It all started in 1924 when local artist William Howard Shuster, Jr., teamed up with fellow creatives to construct a creepy character that people could project all their icky feelings onto and then light on fire. The creators were inspired by the Yaqui Indian tradition of Holy Week, during which a firecracker-filled effigy of Judas is led around the village on a donkey, and ultimately set ablaze.

The first iteration of Zozobra (which means "anxiety" in Spanish) was a 6-foot-tall (2-meter-tall) puppet who made his debut in Shuster's backyard at a private party. Two years later, he showed up at Fiestas de Santa Fe, an annual September festival, and has been wowing crowds ever since.


Zozobra awaits the flames of destruction in 2007.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-3.0)

While the eerie entity has significantly evolved over the last 95 years (he's now a 50-foot-high [15-meter-high] marionette made of muslin and stuffed with hundreds of bags of shredded paper), the concept of Zozobra remains the same: He's part-ghost, part-monster and he's the enemy of all that is good. As legend has it, he casts a spell of darkness and despair over Santa Fe each year and is born from the bad deeds of everyday people. The goal, of course, is to lure this evil guy out into the light of day and send that sucker up in flames in order to snuff out his supremely wicked ways.

To bring Zozobra out of hiding, city leaders invite the bad guy to Fiestas de Santa Fe, and supposedly his out-of-control ego can't resist the chance to show up and crush dreams. Each year, he materializes in the same spot — Fort Marcy Park, the former site of the first Army installation in the southwest. Apparently, he gets especially riled up that residents have kept him waiting, so he casts a spell on the Santa Fe children to become his minions (called Gloomies!) and, in the process, he swaps all the joy in their minds with deep sadness (nope — it's not exactly a Disney fairy tale). As the little Gloomies prepare to raise hell, a group of torch-bearers show up to save the day, freeing the kids from hypnosis and crying "Burn him!"

All that impassioned chanting summons Zozobra's mortal enemy: the Fire Spirit. Torches emerge, dancing ensues and, eventually, Zozobra meets his fiery fate. During this dramatic burning, the crowd dances and sings the Fiesta Song, ready to usher in happiness and optimism, which will last until the following year.

As with everything else in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Zozobra will burn this year. See the website for complete details, but here are some 2021 guidelines from the website:

"Zozobra has limited 2021 General Adnission ticket sales to 10,000 and attendees must show proof of vaccination or negative COVID test results within 72 hours of the event to attend the Burning of Zozobra. Kids have entry when accompanied by an adult who shows proof of negative test results within 72 hours of the event. Kids should wear masks at the event."