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Every September for 86 years, Santa Fe residents have gathered to witness the burning of Zozobra. (Getty Images)

Zozobra: The Boogeyman of Santa Fe

Each year, New Mexicans gather around a giant burning effigy, casting off their bad memories into the consuming bonfire

Darkness has fallen over the city of Santa Fe, and the crowd is getting restless.

From This Story

“Burn him! Burn him!” the revelers shout into the warm September air.

Before the throng –about 23,000 women, men and children – a 49-foot-tall marionette hangs from a pole on a rise above Fort Marcy Park. Soon, Zozobra, named for a Spanish word that roughly translates as “anxiety” or “anguish,” will go up in flames, along with the city’s collective gloom.

Looking like a hideous but nattily dressed tall, thin clown, with Mick Jagger lips, a shock of blue hair, big ears and a white skirted tuxedo with a gold bow tie, Zozobra moans in protest. Jaws flapping, head twisting slowly from side to side, demon-red eyes darting this way and that, he waves his thin arms in a futile deathbed dance.

Tucked within his androgynous frame are bits of “gloom” – scrawled regrets, divorce papers, eviction notices, and a never-used wedding dress.

While most of the crowd eagerly awaits Zozobra’s imminent immolation, heckling and whooping, some of the kids in the audience are clearly spooked. A little boy in his father’s arms turns away and burrows his face into his father’s neck. “I’m scared,” he says. “It’s OK,” his father reassures him. “He’s not real.”

At Zozobra’s feet, a procession of white “glooms,” child dancers resembling diminutive ghosts, are chased away by the Fire Dancer, who taunts Zozobra in a blur of red. Finally, as Zozobra’s moans reach a fever pitch, the keeper of the flame puts a torch to Zozobra’s long, flowing skirt. (The moaning emanates from a behind-the-scenes recording, broadcast over loudspeakers, and is synchronized with the opening and closing of the puppet’s huge mouth.) The crowd cheers as the flames quickly consume him, along with all of their castoff gloom from the past year. Amid a flash of fireworks, what’s left of him falls to the ground in an anticlimactic slump. A persistent white arm, bent at the elbow, fingers pointing toward the heavens, is the last bit of “Old Man Gloom” to succumb to the flames. The whole thing is over in a matter of minutes.

Every September for 86 years, Santa Fe residents have gathered to witness the burning of Zozobra. They come because it’s a spectacle like no other. They come to be entertained. They come to honor a uniquely Santa Fean ritual in a town that calls itself the “City Different.” But above all, they come for the sublime satisfaction of watching their sorrows go up in smoke.

“I think they need a catharsis, a release,” says Ray Valdez of the Santa Fe chapter of the Kiwanis Club, the event’s producer, who has helped orchestrate the building and burning of Zozobra for 21 years. “They need a bogeyman, a monster they can focus their gloom on. We put all our evil, bad things in him, and it will all go away, even for just a moment.”

Valdez became hooked on the Zozobra mystique after his first encounter with Old Man Gloom at age 6. For the next few years, he was obsessed with burning dolls, he remembers.

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