“Write ‘don’t worry’ on it,” says a tiny girl standing on her tiptoes. She speaks to the elderly woman holding her hand at Zozofest last weekend. She’s telling her grandmother what she should write on a scrap of paper, one of thousands that fill the 50-foot tall puppet, known as Zozobra (or Old Man Gloom), that burns on Fort Marcy Field every year in September as part of the Fiestas celebration—the concept being it will engulf the pains, worries, tax forms and wedding dresses of Santa Feans along with it, thereby offering relief from gloom.
Zozobra is a crazy-huge event that draws enormous crowds annually, especially when its numbers are juxtaposed with the usually-modest population of our mountain town. On Tuesday afternoon, event coordinator Ray Sandoval told SFR that over 20,000 tickets had already been sold. Santa Fe’s population hovers around 70,000.
The burning effigy has its modern origins in the backyard of art-mecca-builder Will Shuster. He was a member of the fabled Los Cinco Pintores art collective—rounded out by none other than painter-magnum Fremont Ellis—which settled here in the roaring ‘20s. The group disbanded their artistic brotherhood in 1926. Zozobra first appeared in Shuster’s yard as a 25-foot puppet two years before, in the pre-fall of 1924.
In the nearly 100 years since, Old Man Gloom has grown and taken on meanings and a symbology as varied as the people who attend his annual burning. The official website for the event says Zozobra is “the enemy of all that is good … who exists and is reborn annually as a result of our own nefarious deeds.”
Tens of thousands of people gather on the north Santa Fe field, rain or shine, for hours upon hours of waiting to enjoy the half-hour spectacle, and all the while the dense crowd, some intoxication aplenty, screams “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!”
What is this about?
There are a slew of answers, but no right one. Consider this: Fire and gathering combined has a get-rid-of-the-gloom, transformational vibe and therefore, people burn stuff.
According to Emily Branden, a Vinyasa yoga teacher who has lived and taught yoga in Santa Fe for over 15 years, “One of the reasons I never miss Zozobra is because there is such a huge opportunity when so many of us gather with the intention of changing anything in our lives.”
Even outside the realm of the ever-expanding yogi way of thought, people are aware of collective conscience. “When you do it collectively, like we do in Santa Fe, there’s this huge pilgrimage to the field and we all show up with our shit, and we all have an intention to burn through and let it go,” she says. “It’s so powerful; it’s a cleansing.”
The cleansing power of heat and fire are important components of yoga practice as well. “In India, there is a heating practice and it’s within the tradition of Vinyasa that you heat from the inside out,” Branden tells SFR. “When I have students who bitch about the heat, I love to bring up the idea that it’s an actual practice of discipline. … [There] are times when you are like, ‘Get me out of this fucking pose right now!’ But then once you burn through it and you notice that there is this other side you come to and it’s because you let go—you literally wrung out that which is no longer serving you.”
So sure, all kinds of scientific and common-sense data says sweating expels toxins and other yuck from our bodies. But then we wonder: Can you connect that idea of sweating to get rid of something with the idea of putting your negative thoughts into something and burning it?
"Absolutely,” Branden says. “The Pagans were on to that long, long, long ago, purging and burning. The practice of heat, forever, has been an offering. It’s one of the reasons I love going to Zozobra and I really [never] miss it, because it’s such an opportunity to set intention and let go.”
This overarching connection between fire and cleansing or rebirth reaches into many different cultures, and takes fire ceremonies to mountain peaks, desert valleys and beaches around the world.
Every Dec. 7 in Antigua, Guatemala, citizens burn devil-like statues made of trash to dispel evil and purify their homes in preparation for the upcoming holiday season and the Catholic day of Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8. The burning is called Quema Del Diablo and has occurred annually since colonial times.
In Ireland, the annual May 1 Beltane Fire Festival celebrates the return of summer and cleanses for the new growing season in the farmlands by lighting massive bonfires to form a pathway between farms, and all the livestock pass through on their way to pasture, receiving protection and purification.
On the darkest day of every year, the Winter Solstice, the townspeople of Brighton, England, parade through the city with handmade paper lanterns toward Brighton Beach, where they set them all ablaze. The ceremony is called Burning the Clocks, and celebrates the return of light.
The Deepam Festival in Tiruvunamalai, India, which is 2500 years old, inspired local artist Marion Wasserman to create a video installation piece called Prana Fire. You may have seen it in Currents New Media Festival, earlier this summer, covering the walls of the alley way between Violet Crown Cinema and Santa Fe Clay during.
“My idea there was that you’re supposed to walk into another landscape, that you walk into an alley and suddenly you’re with these people in an entirely different landscape where fire offerings happen,” says the multi disciplined installation artist.
She tells SFR that the town in India where the festival is based is usually the size of Santa Fe, but during Deepam it explodes with people. “It swells to 2 million, so the festival culminates on the full moon and there’s 2 million people spinning around this mountain top,” Wassmerman says. “It’s to worship Shiva, and it’s a two week ceremony where there is a constant flame. I don’t think its just about their woes and bringing all of their negativity up, but about prayer and making an offering to fire and to the element.”
When it comes to Zozobra’s connection to devotional festivals like Deepam, the yogi-artist says, “there’s a correlation. I think it’s really awesome and interesting that our town is able to put its woes on one list, we are allowed to collectively decide not to carry them further.”
Our long-winded point?
People of every kind and origin gather around the flickering flames to celebrate or cleanse. It has happened since the dawn of time and on some level, it must work, even if it is as simple as the placebo effect. Zozobra is chaotic and loud and, oddly enough, quite human.
So, when you’re standing on that grassy field this evening, screaming at the top of your lungs—and probably white-girl-wasted—you may find yourself surrounded by friends you don’t see very often. Take a deep breath and exhale with the intention of releasing the troubles of the year. And who couldn’t use a little letting go?
As Branden reminds us, “After Zozobra has burned to the ground—and we wait until he’s burned to the ground, we love the slow burns—it is a complete honoring of a new start.”