According to the website I am casually staring at, it is exactly 16 days, 10 hours, 9 minutes and 30 seconds, uh make that 29 seconds, until Old Man Gloom—which is more correctly advertised as Will Shuster's Zozobra (trademark and copyrights enforced)—goes up in flames. By the time you read this, it will only be about a week away.
The 92nd iteration of the ritual, happening on Friday, Sept. 2, features a huge papier-mâché puppet whose destruction will vanquish the fears and troubles we've all gathered up into our own zany, quivering and unforgivingly spasmodic bodies over the past year. Zozobra will serve as an effigy of our own fears and regrets, his burning will symbolize the end of our suffering, it's replacement with the future-perfect body resilient enough to be able to shoulder what comes next in life.
How do I know these things? I went to Zozobra and to Las Fiestas de Santa Fe every year for the first 28 years of my life. Whether hauling ass up to Santa with my folks late in the afternoon—after my father got off work at the Watermelon Ranch in southeast Burque, or tripping up there with a bunch of hippie kids loaded en masse into a paisley-painted VW Microbus or taking the slow way early up through Madrid and Los Cerrillos early in the day to see the late summer unfold in the Sandias and Sangre de Cristos with someone who I thought I might marry but never did—the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe and their fiery harbinger, Zozobra, were an intrinsic part of my life as a New Mexican.
You know about Fiestas de Santa Fe, no? That's the yearly celebration that recalls the reconquista of these lands by the Spanish in 1692 by the ruthless or heroic—depending on your point of view—Don Diego de Vargas.
In 1680, following a lengthy and brutal drought in much of the state—and much suffering among the Indigenous population, which included draconian proscriptions on the practice of traditional religious practice—unrest among the northern Pueblo peoples grew into a rebellion led by Popé. From a headquarters at Taos Pueblo, Popé and his followers planned and executed a successful coup, raising a violent siege in Santa Fe and causing the entire Spanish colony to abandon el norte and flee to El Paso.
The Spaniards did not return for 12 years; when they did, more violence ensued. De Vargas and his army approached and surrounded Santa Fe in mid-September, 1692. The resulting reconquest took two years to settle. In the aftermath, the Spanish government once again established its hegemony in the area. When De Vargas died at the beginning of the 18th century, his successors came up with the idea to commemorate the crown's success with a yearly celebration. The first Fiesta de Santa Fe was celebrated in 1712.
Zozobra will serve as an effigy of our own fears and regrets, his burning will symbolize the end of our suffering, it's replacement with the future-perfect body resilient enough to be able to shoulder what comes next in life.
For the next couple of centuries, the event was predictably sober, somber and darkly celebratory. It aimed to re-enforce a normative notion—that the Spanish culture was substantive, supportive and singular in New Mexico.
It wasn't until the early 20th century, when the modernism, embodied by artists from outside the norm, geographically and philosophically, desconstructed the Fiestas. In the 1920s, this group of artists, led by William Howard Shuster, approached the Fiesta council with their plans to inject some levity into the proceedings. Their plans were scoffed at, but the refusal bolstered Shuster and his friends. They went ahead and staged their counter-fiesta, called Pasatiempo, in advance of the official event. They burned an effigy of past sorrows and got the name Zozobra from another local iconoclast, the city's newspaper editor, E. Dana Johnson. The group also came up with two other fun activities, the pet parade, called Desfile de Los Niños and a spoof of local news events called the Hysterical-
Of course, the Fiesta council realized the new events were awesome. Soon, the whole Zozobra deal became part of Las Fiestas de Santa Fe. In the 1960s the Santa Fe Kiwanis were given aegis over the ritual and the event became a spectacle and the highlight of Las Fiestas.
Over the years, the importance and fame of the Zozobra ritual came to supplant the importance of the rest of Las Fiestas. Sometimes, the rowdy partying that happened on the plaza after the effigy's conflagration resulted in unfortunate events in and around Santa. In 1998, a deadly shooting on the plaza after Old Man Gloom burned led planners to move the ritual back, so that it happened a week before Las Fiestas proper. For a while Zozobra appeared on a Thursday night; since last year, the encounter with destiny at Fort Marcy Park has been approved to happen on the Friday before Labor Day.
Though several fiesta events occur after the burning and official sources date the event from Sept. 3-11, Las Fiestas de Santa Fe still start in earnest the next weekend. This year’s Pregón De La Fiesta is on Friday, Sept. 9, at 6am when the mayor of Santa Fe issues a proclamation initiating the celebratory weekend.
If you're like me and realize that Zozobra, past and present, represents an inimitable and unavoidable slice of Nuevo Mexicano culture that you just have to see for yourself, then keep in mind the following ideas for approaching and indulging your greatest fears and your newest hopes.
Get there early. The gates to the field at Fort Marcy Park (where the ritual takes place) open at 3pm and live entertainment of all sorts begins shortly thereafter. Thousands of humans are planning to attend, so keep that in mind. Last year, 48,000 people attended.
Pets, with the exception of service animals are not allowed at the event.
According to the official Zozobra website, no tables, guns, knives or other weaponry are permitted. Further, no glass containers either open or unopened can be brought to the celebration. No alcoholic beverages, no marijuana or any synthetic substance banned by law is allowed at the park. No open containers of any kind are allowed and also there are strict rules against tents, metal-framed lawn chairs (umbrella-style lawn chairs are allowed), laser lights, explosives, fireworks, handheld sparklers and large umbrellas (only small handheld umbrellas allowed). No metal cutlery can be brought onto the park grounds; plastic utensils only. No unauthorized vendors with their own merchandise can be present at the burning of Zozobra.
So yeah, leave that stuff behind and instead bring a list of your woes to add to a traditional “gloom box” that will burn along with the old paper man. As the whole lot goes down in flames, don't forget to smile, laugh, live it up and think about how wonderful the next year will be, now that you're free of all that trouble and smoke.