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

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

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“It felt like a renewal ritual,” says David Gold, who has attended almost every burning of Zozobra for 35 years, reflecting on the September 9 conflagration. “And there was a power to it – the power of that group consciousness.”

But there’s a more sinister side to this peculiar ritual. Zozobra is, after all, a scapegoat.

“We got our bogeyman, we string him up on a pole and we burn him,” Valdez says. “What better scapegoat is there than that?”

Indeed, Old Man Gloom has at times become a symbol of a larger societal malaise: Longtime Santa Fe residents remember when Zozobra took on Japanese features during World War II and assumed a Nixon-like scowl in the 1970s.

But perhaps part of the reason we Santa Feans find such sublime satisfaction in Zozobra’s firey demise, young and old alike, anglo and hispanic, pueblo Indian and Mexican, is because we’ve all been scapegoats ourselves at one time or another. And, chances are, we’ve all projected our own gloom onto someone else at one time or another, too.

While the Zozobra tradition is only 86 years old, it continues a ritualistic purging of woe that dates back to ancient times. The origin of the word “scapegoat” is found in the Old Testament of the Bible. In Leviticus 16, God instructs Aaron, older brother of Moses, to release a goat into the desert to carry away the sins of the people of Israel:

“And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel . . . and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.”

The Ancient Greeks practiced a scapegoating rite, but instead of banishing an animal, they cast out a human being -- either a beggar, criminal or cripple. In other cultures scapegoats were put to death.

Our own history is sullied with the dark injustices of scapegoating, from the burning at the stake of women accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, to the lynching of blacks in the South.

The Zozobra ritual, with its harmless expunging of communal gloom through the burning of a giant wooden doll, is a reflection of more civil times.


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