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Zozobra; A Dancing, Burning Marionette and Insignia of Gloom

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Painting of the Burning of Zozobra

Monster? Ghost? Before midnight, a 50 foot tall marionette is set ablaze and it, along with other trials and tribulations materialized in letters, trinkets and other indelible belongings, become a sky full of ash and sparks in downtown Santa Fe. The burning of the Zozobra effigy has been a long-running tradition dating back to 1924 when an artist named Gustave Baumann came up with the idea. The word 'Zozobra' literally means anxiety or distress in Spanish and is meant to embody gloom and all the heaviness weighing on one from the year.

My first Zozobra was a night of wild thrill, wonder, and spiritedness. Although I didn't fully understand the meaning behind the festivities, I soon had sacks and sacks of junk I was dragging up to dump at the foot of Zozobra to speak metaphorically. The night started with a long shift at work, a thick coating of grease on my hair, and to be completely honest, a closed mind. Some buddies had been hyping up Zozobra all evening and by the end of the night I'd decided to check it out for whatever it was worth.

I immediately enjoyed myself as the big energy of the night contagiously spread through the crowd of Santa Feans around us and festivities began taking place. Fire dancers and other live performers took the stage. Once a woman with a flowering headdress and two blazing torches appeared onstage, I was then informed by a friend, she was called the "fire spirit dancer" and symbolized the arch enemy of Zozobra, her job being to scare off the gloom and cast away the darkness of the year. I started to understand more of the tradition of Zozobra.

It took meeting a local Santa Fean woman who was there with her two sons to really understand what the celebration meant. She had finally just extracted herself from a messy fifteen month divorce and told me how she had thrown her divorce papers in the Gloom Box, a place people are encouraged to add their own grievances to the stuffings of Zozobra in the weeks leading up to the burning. She was grinning and laughing the entire time I saw her, and as the first flames licked the side of the marionette she flipped both her middle finger up to the sky and cheered with delight.

Needless to say, after that, I decided to do a bit of emotional unloading myself that night. Imagining all the hardships I'd experienced that year slipping off my back and going up in flames not only gave me an expeditious sense of release and cleansing as well as a fierce sense of connection to the community I had just recently transplanted myself into. The tradition of Zozobra helped me not only on a personal level, but also taught me as I bore witness to a cultural event dating back almost a hundred years and got to be a part of an entire community's ability to come together to cleanse and grow.

This year Zozobra will be televised following safety guidelines for COVID-19 on Friday, September 4, 2020. For those who wish to submit their dooms and glooms of the year (we've had quite the year) online, can do so at this link.

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