While Albuquerque is a mere hour away from Santa Fe, it’s possible that you may have never attended one of the City Different’s most beloved events: the Burning of Zozobra. Zozobra, a giant effigy also called Old Man Gloom, is filled with spectators’ glooms and woes, then they are burned away with him. He’ll burn for the 100th time in 2024, so if you haven’t attended yet, read all about this Labor Day Weekend tradition and make your plans to attend soon.
1. Zozobra’s Smokey Past
The Burning of Zozobra traces back to Will “Shus” Shuster, a native of Pennsylvania born in 1893. Serving in World War I, Shus was subjected to German gas attacks, leading his doctor to warn that if he didn’t move to the drier west for his health, he’d likely only live a few months. Heeding this advice, Shus migrated to Santa Fe in the heart of the Land of Enchantment, where he outlived his prognosis by 45 years.
A graduate in art, Shus found himself immersed in Santa Fe’s vibrant artistic community, becoming one of the “Los Cinco Pintores” (the five painters). This creative quintet contributed to Santa Fe’s transformation into a renowned art hub and shared their fortunes whenever one sold a piece of art.
On Christmas Eve of 1923, after selling a painting he’d been working on for five months, Shus suggested a joyous celebration at the newly inaugurated La Fonda. Despite treating his fellow artists to this feast, he was disappointed by their prevailing gloominess. This led to Shus’ idea of physically burning away what troubled them by setting their written grievances alight.
His idea was further shaped by an experience in Mexico, where he observed an effigy of Judas being paraded and scorned before being set aflame during a Good Friday celebration. These two experiences ignited the spark of Zozobra.
Shus created a rich lore for Zozobra, linking the ceremony with the Santa Fe Fiesta in autumn — a season representing renewal and rebirth in various cultures. However, a fresh start necessitates shedding the burdens of the past, embodied by Zozobra or Old Man Gloom.
The seemingly paradoxical act of inviting this embodiment of negative energy as a guest of honor is, in fact, a ruse. The real purpose is to vanquish this gloom using the collective positive energy of the crowd, transformed into a Fire Spirit who generates fireworks and a fiery cascade. Whether Zozobra will fall is contingent on the audience’s positive energy.
Today, the tradition is a grand celebration with music, food, and entertainment, featuring Zozobra as the star attraction.
2. What is Zozobra?
Zozobra is a gigantic marionette, representing the collective negative energies generated by human beings. This phantom is the embodiment of all gloom.
3. The Origins of His Name
Zozobra bears various monikers like Old Man Gloom, King of Gloom, New Mexico’s Boogieman, and more. However, Shus sought a non-English name for his creation. He and a friend consulted a Spanish/English dictionary where they stumbled upon “zozobra” — a word translated as “gloom,” “anxiety,” or “being shipwrecked.” Finding it an apt choice, Shus adopted it, and almost 100 years later, Zozobra has become a legend in his own right.
4. Burning Your Glooms with Zozobra
Ready to consign your troubles to Zozobra? On the day of the event, a gloom box tent is set up for attendees to pen down their glooms. Gloom boxes are also dispersed across Santa Fe for deposits in the preceding months.
ZozoFest, held the weekend before Zozobra’s burning, offers another opportunity. At this fun and free event, participants can personally insert their glooms into the effigy. In addition, an online submission option is available for those unable to attend. Every online gloom costs $1, and contributors receive a Certificate of Destruction signed by the Fire Spirit, confirming their glooms’ incineration.
5. The Custodians of Zozobra
The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe has long handled the Burning of Zozobra as a fundraising event, likely succeeding beyond their wildest dreams with a record in-person attendance of 71,089 and more than 250,000 one year watching on TV, webcasts, and attending in person.
6. The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe
The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe is dedicated to service and fundraising, primarily for charities and nonprofits supporting underprivileged children. The Burning of Zozobra stands as their primary annual project, funding support for needy New Mexico children. The profits from this event also contribute to Kiwanis International’s Project Eliminate, which provides neonatal tetanus shots to expectant mothers in third-world countries.
7. When and Where Zozobra Burns
The traditional schedule for the Zozobra event is the weekend preceding Labor Day, at Fort Marcy Park during the Santa Fe Fiesta week. Full event details can be accessed here.
The Burning of Zozobra is a unique cultural event in Santa Fe, staged annually by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, on the Friday of Labor Day weekend as an exciting and fiery finale to the last days of summer.
8. Fundraising Through Zozobra
Ticket sales primarily generate funds for the Zozobra event, supplemented by merchandise like T-shirts and posters. The resulting profits are directed towards grants benefiting organizations focusing on needy young children. Tickets range from general admission to some pretty exclusive seating areas that sell out quickly. The $1 online gloom submissions contribute to the overall proceeds. If unable to attend, supporters can contribute through the Help Zozobra Help Kids! initiative here.
9. Zozobra Has Grown a Bit Taller
The first Zozobra effigy was crafted by Will Shuster. Although Zozobra’s size has grown from the original six feet to a towering 50 feet, the construction still follows Shuster’s blueprints, ensuring the effigy remains a unique creation each year.
10. Local Artist Participation in Zozobra
Artists can join the annual Adult and Youth Poster and T-Shirt contests as well as submit art to be displayed at ZozoFest. Further information on involvement can be found here.
11. How Zozobra Burns
The actual burning of Zozobra is achieved through the Fire Spirit using Zozobra’s most hated thing against him: fire. Several traditions are incorporated into the burning process, including a fire cascade, a fireworks crown, and the ignition of his paper hair, ultimately setting the entire body ablaze. Zozobra also appears to breathe fire thanks to a flare in his mouth.
12. Post-Burning Activities
Once Zozobra has been burnt to embers, music, food, and entertainment continue to thrill the audience.
13. Getting There from Albuquerque
For those traveling from Albuquerque, the Rail Runner Express Train is a convenient option. Board the train in Albuquerque and exit at the South Capitol station, where you can use the free shuttle services to and from Fort Marcy Park.