What’s with Zozobra? A brief history on this Santa Fe tradition


If you have never heard of Zozobra many local Santa Feans describe it as, “They make this giant man-thing and everyone puts their worries in it and they burn it down. It’s a big party. It is something that may be hard to describe but it is an event celebrating its 93rd year in Santa Fe. How did this seemingly strange custom and celebration come to be and why do so many people love going to the burning of Zozobra?

History of Zozobra in Santa Fe

Zozobra began in 1924 as an art endeavor, social commentary, catharsis, and bonding experiment amongst friends. The famous Will Shuster and his artist colleagues decided that Las Fiestas de Santa Fe, or the annual week-long fiesta celebrated in the capital city, didn’t have the type of flare that a celebration of that capacity should. This is how the lighthearted ceremonial burning of a mythical creature came to be.

Will Shuster was reportedly inspired by celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico who burned an effigy of Judas filled with firecrackers during Holy Week. Shuster then created his own 50-foot “boogeyman” who lives in the forests near Santa Fe who brings despair and sadness to its residents (originally named Old Man Groucher).  His name, Zozobra comes from a Spanish expression roughly translated as “the gloomy one”. As a means to eradicate gloom across the city, the town’s people invited the monster to an enormous party in his name in the middle of town. When he arrived, he was promptly strung up a pole and then burned alive (don’t worry, it’s a fictional character).

Two years after Zozobra’s inception, town officials asked Shuster and his group if they would make the event public. The story goes that in 1926, the Los Cincos artists and the Kiwanis Club members presented the effigy that looks quite similar to today’s Zozobra to the crowd. The Santa Fe Sheriff came on stage and read aloud the charges filed against the Zozobra for spreading worry across the land. Then he emptied his entire revolver into the enormous puppet. They then lit it on fire, displayed fireworks as costumed dancers provided entertainment.

Today the enormous effigy takes thousands of volunteer hours to put together and is coordinated by the local Kiwanis Club who donates the proceeds to local charities serving New Mexican youth.

This self-described biggest party in Santa Fe is truly a community-building event. School children write their worries, people bring in their divorce papers, death certificates of loved ones, over due bills and handwritten notes to stuff into the Zozobra. Once mounted on the poll he flails back and forth, shaking his head in the wind, accompanied by gongs and groaning sounds for full dramatic effect. We stand there as one united crowd cheering as our troubles from the year past go up in flames.

Zozobra 2023 – Friday September 1st

Catch the 99th annual Burning of Will Shuster’s Zozobra on Friday, September, 1st  at Fort Marcy Park, located on Bishop’s Lodge Road. The gates open at 4:00 pm, and the burning takes place at dark and lasts less than an hour. This is a rain or shine event. Food trucks and entertainment will be on site for this family friendly event.

This event marks the beginning of the 10-day long Fiestas de Santa Fe . It’s an amazing time to get out and enjoy your community or to make a short trek to Santa Fe to see how The City Different lives up to its name.