Zozobra, known as “Old Man Gloom” was the creation of the Santa Fe Artist William Howard Shuster (1893-1969). Born in Philadelphia he moved to Santa Fe in 1920. Here he met the artist John Sloan (1871-1951), also a Pennsylvanian, who mentored him. John Sloan one of the most important artists of the Ash Can school came to Santa Fe for four months every year for 30 years.
The first Zozobra that Shuster built for the entertainment of his friends in his back yard was 6 feet tall. In 1925 Shuster with an editor for The New Mexican, E. Dana Johnson and the help of the artist Gustave Baumann (link to blog) built a 20 foot version to burn in public before the beginning of the Hispanic celebration of Fiesta de Santa Fe. They filled their puppet with paper representing all the gloom of the community and immolated it. Today Zozobra stands almost 50 feet tall, and citizens and visitors alike are invited to submit their misfortunes over the past year, including documents such as divorce papers, to be stuffed into the puppet.
This year was the 300th anniversary of the Fiesta which celebrates the Spaniards’ peaceful re-conquest of Santa Fe from the Indians in 1692. The event lasts for a 3 day weekend and starts and concludes with mass at the Cathedral. On Saturday morning there is a children’s pet parade. On Sunday, a community parade is led by police and fire departments and Caballeros of Don Diego de Vargas in period regalia and on horseback, followed by floats from schools, sports teams and other political and town representatives. Throughout there are concerts on the plaza and ethnic food stands galore.
The most popular event, however, occurs the afternoon and night before Fiesta begins with live bands in Fort Marcy park under the stare of. the huge paper maché puppet. The actual burning of Zozobra is scheduled for nightfall which is, at this time of year, approximately 8:15 pm.
We usually have an early dinner in town and plan for a 7:30 arrival to settle in. We also carry extra sweaters and a blanket to sit on, none of which were necessary this time around. Because of increased security and the banishment of strollers the line to get in must have been a half mile long and it did not seem to move. We have seen this event a number of times and we did not wish to wait in line possibly until after the burning began. Also, as it turned out, an unnecessary concern.
Many, even those with advanced purchase tickets, were turning around to leave. As we were coming to the same conclusion and began to reverse our steps, our guardian angel appeared. Our dear friend, City Councilwoman, Rebecca Wurzburger was with her family and she invited us to join her, so we got to see the event from a close up and high vantage point on the 2nd floor of the firehouse at Fort Marcy. Even if we never go again, that night we had quite the experience. Unfortunately, there was an additional fly in the ointment. For the second year in a row the city experienced moderately high winds and the burning had to wait for an additional 90 minutes until the winds died down, so that It only got going shortly before 10pm, an extremely late hour where the main dinner time is 6:00 pm.
Eventually Old Man Gloom began moving his arms and groaning. First, however, a “judge” pronounced a death sentence and then came a horde of “Gloomies”, little dancers from primary school. Next there were the fire dancers with lighted torches and at that point the lights were turned off. One does not go for the choreography but it is all quite effective. Near the end fireworks were shot from the vicinity of Zozobra in very short spurts and finally we saw little explosions under the skirt of the puppet and it began to blaze. It all leads to a crescendo and Zozobra is totally ablaze with cascading fireworks above and the crowd of tens of thousands begin to spill into the streets finding their way back to their vehicles, presumably purged of a year’s worth of worry.