The annual Burning of Zozobra is an iconic Santa Fe event that draws thousands to Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to watch the oversized marionette filled with glooms be reduced to cinders. For almost 100 years, Santa Feans have cheered on Old Man Gloom’s demise as he has evolved, grown, and become an avenue to raise funds for area nonprofits, all coordinated by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe. Here are 14 things you should know about Zozobra!
1. How did the burning of Zozobra come to be?
The Burning of Zozobra was created by Will “Shus” Shuster. Shus was born in 1893, a Pennsylvanian who fought in World War I. He was sent to France, where he was gassed by the Germans. When he got home, he was told by his doctor he only had a few months to live, or he could go out West and try to eke out a few more years. Shus moved to Santa Fe in the Land of Enchantment and lived for 45 more years.
Shus had a degree in art and in Santa Fe became part of the “Los Cinco Pintores” (the five painters) who were partly responsible for Santa Fe becoming the art colony that it is now. Los Cinco Pintores (or “five nuts in a hut” as some locals called them) lived off each other’s successes. If someone sold a painting, they would all live off that money until someone sold another.
On Christmas Eve of 1923, Shus sold a painting he had been working on for five months. He told his comrades that they should just go out and celebrate Christmas Eve the right way by blowing the money on tequila and dinner at the newly opened La Fonda. They shouldn’t worry about what the next year was going to bring. They all agreed.
Shus recorded in his diary that he was upset with his friends because despite him taking them out to celebrate, they were in a bad mood. So, he gave each friend a piece of paper and demanded they write down what is bothering them. He took the candle on the table and lit the pieces of paper on fire. They all got kicked out and ended up laughing outside together on the curb.
This was the beginning of the idea of symbolically burning away what is bothering you. In April of 1923, Shus traveled to Mexico and witnessed a Good Friday celebration where a five-foot effigy of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was paraded through town, spat on, and berated.
It is through these two experiences that Zozobra was born.
Shus was also the mastermind behind the mythology that goes along with Zozobra. He wanted it to be held in the fall alongside the Santa Fe Fiesta. Fall in many cultures and religions is a symbol of rebirth and starting anew, and that is exactly what this celebration is all about.
But to start fresh, you must destroy the negative energy from the past. That is what Zozobra is. The physical embodiment the negative energy that humans put out into the world. Shus decided that the town needed to invite Old Man Gloom to the Santa Fe Fiesta as the guest of honor. But it’s a trick! The celebration isn’t to honor him but the destroy him with the positive energy that the crowd of visitors creates. The positive energy is manifested into a Fire Spirit who uses this positive energy to cultivate fireworks and a waterfall of fire. It is not always guaranteed that Zozobra will fall. It is the crowd’s job to bring enough positive energy to help the Fire Spirit defeat Zozobra.
Today the tradition is carried on with a giant celebration of music, food, entertainment, and of course the guest of honor, Zozobra!
2. Who/What is Zozobra?
Zozobra, or Old Man Gloom, is often referred to as a specter or effigy. This enormous marionette is the physical representation of all the negative energy that humans put out into the world. The embodiment of gloom.
3. How did Zozobra get its name?
Zozobra is called by many names, like Old Man Gloom, Old Man Groucher, King of Gloom, and New Mexico’s Boogieman. They are self-explanatory, but most people wonder where the name Zozobra comes from.
Shus didn’t want an English name for his boogie man. He consulted with a friend who worked at the local newspaper, and they consulted a Spanish/English dictionary. They looked up the word “gloom” and found “zozobra,” which also translates to “anxiety” and “being shipwrecked.” Shus thought the word fit perfectly and the name stuck.
4. How do those that want to participate get their glooms to Zozobra?
There are many ways you can get your glooms inside Zozobra to be burned. On the day of the event, there will be a tent with a “gloom box” where you can write down your glooms to be put inside Zozobra. Gloom boxes are located all over Santa Fe so you can drop off your glooms during the months leading up to the event.
ZozoFest takes place the weekend before Zozobra in the warehouse where he is created and features Zozobra art from years past. Here, visitors can stuff their glooms into Zozobra themselves. “People hold this tradition sacred,” says Ray Sandoval, Zozobra event chairman. “They will take the piece of paper and find a quiet corner away from others almost as if it is a ballot. Then they stuff it into the wireframing and shake it to make sure it’s not going to fall out. It’s an emotional experience.”
Glooms can also be submitted online for those who have moved away or can’t make it to the Burning of Zozobra. This method was created during the pandemic when the organizing body had to come up with an alternate way to raise funds. Each gloom submitted online is $1. Online glooms are then printed out and stuffed into Zozobra. Those who use this method will receive a Certificate of Destruction signed by the Fire Spirit confirming that their glooms were burned.
Fun Fact: Glooms are not limited to just pieces of paper with writing on them. Visitors in the past have brought hospital gowns, wedding dresses, photo albums, and mortgage papers. Anything that is holding and creating negative energy in one’s life can be stuffed into Old Man Gloom and burned away!
5. Who puts on Zozobra?
The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe
6. What is the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe?
The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe conducts service projects and fundraising to support charities and nonprofit organizations that help young children in need. The Burning of Zozobra is the main annual service project that allows the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe to support New Mexico children in need. They also use funds raised at the Burning of Zozobra to support support Kiwanis International’s Project
The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe supports YouthWorks, Girls Inc. of Santa Fe, and many other charities that focus on helping children.
7. When/where does Zozobra typically take place?
Zozobra traditionally takes place the weekend before Labor Day at Fort Marcy Park during Santa Fe Fiesta week. Get the full event details here.
8. How are funds raised through Zozobra?
Ticket sales are the main source of funds raised during the Burning of Zozobra, but people also purchase T-shirts and posters. Event profits are used towards grants to support organizations that focus on young children in need. General admission tickets are $20 and New Mexico residents receive $5 off. Premium viewing areas are available for between $75 and $300 depending on the area. Children 10 years of age and younger get in free. The proceeds from the $1 online gloom submissions also go towards the total. If you can’t attend but still want to support, you can donate to Help Zozobra Help Kids! here.
9. Who created the first Old Man Gloom and how is he created today?
Will Shuster created the very first Zozobra, which stood six feet tall. It is important to note that Zozobra is not a political or religious figure; he is a specter that is created from the negative energy that we put out into the world.
Shus’ blueprints for building Zozobra are still used today although Zozobra had grown to 50 feet tall from its original six feet. His head is created out of various geometric shapes that Shus arranged to look like a human head. Because different artists create Zozobra from scratch each year, he never looks the same. He is made to be recognizable but never a carbon copy of a previous year.
10. How can local artists get involved with Zozobra?
Artists can get involved by competing in the Adult and Youth Poster and T-Shirt contests that are held every year. Check out the winner of the 2022 contests here. More information on how to become involved can be found here.
11. What are the logistics behind the burning portion?
While the real method behind burning Zozobra is the manifestation of the Fire Spirit from the crowd’s positive energy, the Fire Spirit uses Zozobra’s least favorite thing against him, fire!
Shus wrote in his diary in 1928 that he wanted “to take participants on an emotional ride.” He envisioned fireworks painting a black sky weakening the strength of Zozobra.
There is a checklist that must be followed to fulfill the traditions. Some of which are the waterfall of fire, a crown of fireworks, and even the way his hair is made. Zozobra’s hair is made of shredded paper held in place by wire. As the hair ignites from the fireworks and begins to fall, it lights the rest of the body on fire. There is also a flare in his mouth that allows him to breath fire.
12. Is there anything to stick around for after Old Man Gloom goes up in flames?
Yes, especially with the Decades Project. This year the event will be ‘90s themed and once the lights come on after the burning, the whole event will transition into the 2000s! There will still be music, food, and other entertainment after Zozobra goes down…unless he wins.
Learn more about the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe’s Decades Project here.
13. What would be your number one tip for first-time attendees?
Park at South Capitol and take advantage of the free shuttles to and from Fort Marcy Park. Over 60,000 people attend this event every year which makes the already not-so-easy parking situation even worse. Security is also provided at South Capitol to ensure your property stays safe. If you are traveling from Albuquerque, take advantage of the Rail Runner Express Train.
“Be ready to have an amazing authentic experience like no other,” says Ray.
You can get more first-timer tips here.
14. Sponsors that help make Zozobra possible.
A special thanks to the sponsors that have supported Zozobra and the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe year after year. Thank you, Hutton Broadcasting, Avangrid, KOAT Channel 7, PNM, Responsible Gaming Association of New Mexico, and everyone else for your continued support. Find out how to become a sponsor here.
Meet the singers who will perform the national anthem at Zozobra, New Year’s Eve on the plaza, and the 2023 Fourth of July celebration on the plaza.