THE WOMAN APPROACHED the “gloom” table flanked by two boys, perhaps seven or eight years old. They advanced quietly—at least compared with the melee of people feverishly jotting down their glooms and stuffing them into one of several glittery boxes festooned with flames and Zozobra’s image.
The sun had just begun its slow late-summer descent, leaving a fuchsia streak in the sky and a rising anticipatory hum in Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy Park, as the clock ticked closer to the burn. The mom and her sons wore identical plaintive expressions and appeared to have a question. At first, the encounter conformed to the general traffic pattern at the Burning of Zozobra gloom table, where I have volunteered for the last 20 or so years. People come either as seasoned pros—frequently with their written grievances already prepared to hand over—or as newcomers eager to learn what’s going on.
The short story on the annual Labor Day weekend fete, hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, is this: In 1924, artist William “Will” Howard Shuster Jr. created the first Zozobra to burn at a backyard party in Santa Fe with a group of fellow artists and writers known as Los Cinco Pintores. Shuster drew inspiration from Easter Holy Week traditions in the Yaqui communities of Arizona and Mexico. He and newspaper editor E. Dana Johnson devised the Spanish name Zozobra for the creation, which translates to anguish, anxiety, or gloom.
Since then, Shuster’s creation and the event that celebrates his fiery demise have both grown exponentially. The first Zozobra measured approximately six feet tall. These days, Old Man Gloom reaches 50 feet tall and gets packed with thousands of notes, documents, photographs, and other forms of flammable ephemera, like medical bills and mortgage documents, to be incinerated in a cathartic purging of bad energy.
Moreover, attendance at last year’s burning—the first without capacity limits since the Covid-19 pandemic—hit a record of approximately 71,000 revelers, all anxious to bid farewell to another year’s worth of disappointments, sorrows, and gripes, and celebrate a tradition that melds artistic vision with community.
“I love Zozobra so much,” says Zozobra press liaison Lisa Jaramillo. “As a kid, I remember it always being like one of the most joyful times of the year. For most kids, it’s Christmas when you open up presents, but for us, there was always this anticipation built up for Zozobra.”
After gates open at 4 p.m., activity at the gloom table ebbs and flows, growing busier the closer we get to sundown, when the ceremony begins. Until then, attendees listen and dance to local bands, and snack on funnel cake and other fair foods while visiting with friends new and old. Zozobra is one of the rare local traditions that’s as accessible to newcomers and visitors as it is to native Santafesinos. The inclusiveness adds to its charm and has helped it endure.
“The whole purpose is to bring our community together,” says Ray Sandoval, event chairman for the Burning of Zozobra. “It’s a mandate for us.” Sandoval, who has been crafting the massive marionette’s face since he was 18 years old, has been a driving force in furthering that mission by returning the event to a Friday night—after safety concerns in the mid-1990s moved it to Thursday for several years—so more kids could attend. “There will always be places for folks,” he adds. “Because that’s the number one goal.”
AT THE GLOOM TABLE, I get an intimate glimpse into Zozobra’s power. Everyone experiences grief of varying degrees, and I am here as its administrative assistant.
In 2022, with less than two hours before showtime, a couple in their seventies draw near, sorrow written on their faces, as they hand over what appear to be family photos and quickly shuffle away without making eye contact. Shortly thereafter, two high-spirited young women advance, carrying shirts that belonged to their cheating ex-boyfriends. They high-five each other—and me—before heading back into the crowd.
We stock the table throughout the night with pens and paper. People lean on the table to write and, when it’s crowded, use each other’s backs. One young boy scribbles quickly, then tells me his gloom was the loss of his pet rat. Some people cry quietly as they write down their glooms. One woman laughs as she asks me to photograph her, smiling, while she stuffs her divorce decree into one of the bedazzled boxes we have for just such purposes. Another woman arrives clutching Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. She holds it up over her head so the crowd at the table can see—earning applause.
Since 2020, Covid-19 has remained a top gloom, with many last year—including Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham—citing the pandemic’s toll as their top gloom for the year. Several people—including the state health department’s spokeswoman—stop by the table just to write “Covid-19” on a sheet of paper (in her case accompanied by an expletive) and shove it in the gloom box.
While current events can influence the collective gloom, the crowd’s will to exorcise a year’s worth of misery remains as consistent as candy on Halloween. Longtime volunteer Angela Ortiz-Flores works as a psychotherapist and says she’s even provided a gloom box for her clients. “It is so therapeutic to put your glooms in and burn them and get rid of them,” she says. “It’s just so powerful.”
Sandoval believes the event’s dichotomy is its true genius. “It’s an extremely personal experience,” he says. “You know what you put inside Zozobra that you want to burn.” But you’re also sitting on a ball field with 70,000 others, dancing and chanting, “Burn him!” over and over. “You’re part of a big community and feel as if you’re connected to other human beings.”
Love for Zozobra runs deep with Kiwanis Club members and other organizers, who work throughout the year to plan the event before construction starts in June at the Santa Fe Place Mall. That kicks off a series of events, including a public “stuffing day,” when anyone can come help fill Zozobra’s innards, and a massive ZozoFest art show (August 25–27) the weekend before the actual burn.
In Sandoval’s case, his parents took him to his first burn when he was three weeks old. Now 48, he hasn’t missed one since—even flying home during college and law school to attend—before becoming event chairman in 2012. Press liaison Jaramillo, a childhood friend of Sandoval’s, grew up attending makeshift miniature Zozobra burnings in his backyard.
THE KIWANIS CLUB INHERITED ZOZOBRA from Shuster in 1964, and the organization takes the responsibility of preserving the tradition seriously. For the last 10 years—leading up to next year’s 100th anniversary—organizers have revisited Zozobra’s history via the Decades Project, styling Zozobra’s hair and outfit every year to evoke one decade from the past and encouraging attendees to also dress thematically for the event.
This year, which commemorates the aughts, marks the last installment of the project. The September 1 event also means a return to crowd limits. After working with a security consultant, the Kiwanis has decided to cap attendance at 55,000 (so get those tickets while you can!).
For those who can’t attend, opportunities remain to submit gloom—both online and at events such as ZozoFest. Some local businesses also serve as drop-off points in advance.
Sandoval has seen every type of memento brought to burn inside Zozobra. One that sticks with him, he says, is a woman who brought her hospital gown after she went into remission for a cancer her doctor had diagnosed as terminal. “She was crying. I was crying. The security guard was crying,” Sandoval says. “It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had.”
SHORTLY BEFORE THE CEREMONY, a group of us carry the load of gloom—sometimes needing multiple trips—through security and on stage behind Zozobra, stopping to wave at the crowds so they can see we are, indeed, ensuring the incineration of all the woe we’ve collected. With that much emotion in the field, no wonder the crowd goes wild as soon as the lights go out. On stage, the Fire Dancer taunts Zozobra, who begins to moan. She fights back his army of Gloomies, or “Zozobra’s Fire Spirits, who chase the torchbearers away,” says Ortiz-Flores, who oversees the dancers. The crowd chants, “Burn him!” as we all wait for another year’s sadness to go up in smoke.
That brings me back to the woman, her two sons, and their question. Her husband—the boys’ father—had died recently and was cremated. Her sons wanted some of his ashes to be placed into Zozobra, and she wanted to know if it was okay. I made an on-the-spot decision, said it was fine, then carried the ashes separately so I could place the container at Zozobra’s base.
I have never read anyone’s glooms—despite being professionally nosy, I respect people’s privacy—but various stories stick with me. I think of those people as Zozobra burns, and I hope for their solace. That year, I concentrated on the woman and her sons.
When people new to the ceremony stop by the table, they often ask the same question: “Does it work?” I tell them the same answer: It does, if you concentrate on letting go as you watch the flames ignite, the giant puppet fall, and the fireworks fill the darkened New Mexico sky.
Drop off glooms in advance. If you can’t attend Zozobra or just want to get the grievances out of your house, head to the Santa Fe Reporter to submit them. 1512 Pacheco St., Suite D105, Santa Fe
Unable to drop off glooms in person? Submit them online for $1; upload documents and photos to burn for $5 (additional upgrades allow you to specify where in Zozobra you want your gloom stuffed). All proceeds benefit the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe’s funding of community youth organizations.