Native Americans offer a wide variety of
jewelry and other hand-made
crafts during La Fiesta.

Santa Fe is turquoise, emerald, sunflower yellow, and electric red against a background of sage and several shades of terra cotta. With such lively colors, it's no wonder Fiesta de Santa Fe, the city's annual celebration, is equally vibrant. The center of the action is the Plaza, where music and dance and vendors of all kinds of crafts and souvenirs meet.

The heat of summer is past, New Mexico's beautiful winter hasn't arrived, and in September it's shirt-sleeve weather: sunny and pleasant. We have driven up to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on Thursday, the first day of Fiesta de Santa Fe, heralded by the burning of Zozobra.

As far as we're concerned, this is the highlight of la fiesta. Just after dusk, a 50-foot effigy called Zozobra will be burned in the central park, accompanied by dancers and drumbeats. Zozobra is also known as "old-man gloom". Santa Feans believe that when he is burned, all of your troubles go up in smoke with him. However, depending on who you talk to, there will be no troubles either for the next five days or in the coming year.

Fiesta de Santa Fe is four days of celebration
with an arts-and-crafts market, food
booths, & multi-cultural entertainment.

By 6 p.m. Santa Fe's Fort Marcy Park is filling with teen-agers cruising for friends and families picnicking on blankets. For many this is a tradition—parents with small children remember when they first saw the burning of Zozobra as youngsters. There's a definite air of fun and camaraderie. It's all designed to be a family-friendly event; no alchohol of any kind is permitted inside the gated park, and you have to have purchased a ticket to gain entrance

On an elevated structure at one side of the park stands this year's Zozobra. He has big ears and wears a bow-tie and a scowling expression. This year he also wears something new: cufflinks made from pizza pans. Over the past two weeks, the massive paper effigy has been constructed in a 4-H barn on the Santa Fe fairgrounds. Basically, he's a muslin figure stuffed with shredded paper. Before he's strung up, his head and part of his insides are laced with explosives. Once mounted, he's secured by stout steel cables to a sixty-foot metal pole and a twelve-foot crossbar. The steel wires attached to his arms, head and mouth allow the puppet's movements to be manipulated from the ground. Though Zozobra has been designed and built as a marionette puppet, until dark he will remain a motionless, sullen, spectator towering above the happy festivities.

Zozobra, or "Old Man Gloom" wails his last
howl of outrage before being consigned to a fiery
death before thousands of chanting celebrants.

It's now dusk, and the feeling of anticipation is growing in the park. Twenty-four Santa Fe children draped in white sheets appear as "Gloomies" to dance around the feet of the effigy. While tom toms thunder on huge kettledrums, the children are led by the Queen of Gloom. They have come to "plead" for Zozobra's life, but to no avail.

Kiwanian Dan Clavio reads this year's proclamation of the death of Old Man Gloom: "Zozobra, for being a hideous 50-foot bogeyman, a toothless, empty-headed façade with no guts, no legs, but lots of noise and growling, for scaring the children of Santa Fe and making dogs howl at the moon!"

Native American Indians perform traditional
music and dance on the Plaza stage.

A group of Fire Dancers appear, their purpose to tease and annoy Old Man Gloom. Now he starts to move his arms, open and close his mouth, and moan. A single adult dancer then performs a solo, ending in the lighting of the torch to the hem of Zozobra's skirt.

This fire dance was originally performed by Jacques Cartier, a dancer from the east who was the official fire dancer at Zozobra for over 30 years. We learn later by watching a video presentation on the history of Zozobra at the New Mexico History Museum in the Governor's Palace on the Plaza. "It damn near killed me half a dozen times," Cartier says on the museum video, and he even broke both ankles "thank God, not at the same time." Cartier also supervised the little gloomies. Cartier says the idea of Zozobra "grew out of a gang of Santa Fe deep-thinkers who met in something called 'Society of Quien Sabe'?" (Who knows?) He says they "met once a month", and membership was based on "how well you could tell yarns."

Flags of family crests lining one side of the Plaza
feature names of long-time New Mexico families:
Pacheco, Martínez, Nieto, Tapia, Romero,
Girón, Alba, Archuleta, Sandoval.

The ritual burning, today sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, began back in 1924 when artist and Quien Sabe member Will Shuster wanted to add a little spice to a party for his friends. At the time, Santa Fe had already become a health retreat and mecca for artists. Up until this time, la Fiesta had been a sober experience, but the Quien Sabe intellectuals had other ideas. The story goes that Shuster designed a life-size effigy, the idea taken from papier maché Judas figures he'd seen in Old Mexico, to burn at his party.

On the museum video, author Tony Hillerman says, "Zozobra provided a more diverse and light-hearted side of fiesta; an affigy to be burned at fiesta. Whether or not it's true, it's a great idea."

Visit Webbandstand.comSanta Fe, the oldest capital city in the U.S., was called the "City of the Holy Faith" by the Spanish in the seventeenth century. At the time Spanish soldiers, officials, and Franciscan missionaries struggled to conquer and convert the native Pueblo Indians. In a massive revolt, the Indians attacked and nearly burned all of Santa Fe to the ground. But in 1692, Don Diego de Vargas led a bloodless siege that enabled him to enter the city and take it back for the Spanish without firing a single shot. An annual religious fiesta in honor of Our Lady of Peace and honoring Vargas' reconquest was established in 1712, and La Fiesta de Santa Fe remains the oldest such continuing event in the U.S.

By the time the torch is lit, as many as 25,000 people have gathered on the open field chanting, "Burn 'im—burn 'im—burn 'im!" Zozobra waves his arms, shakes his head from side to side, and emits a loud, eerie, groaning howl.

Harold Gans, the "voice" of Zozobra is also interviewed on the museum video. "I've been involved in my whole adult life," he says. "It's something nobody else does."

According to Santa Fe's favorite legend, all
our cares and troubles burn
away with Zozobra.

The flames crawl quickly up Zozobra's skirt, setting off the explosives inside him, while a blaze of fireworks erupts overhead. The colorful display overhead lasts for several minutes after Old Man Gloom has been completely demolished. The crowd cheers, appeased for yet another year. For the rest of the evening, bars and restaurants on and around the Plaza overflow with happy celebrants.

For more information, contact:

Santa Fe Convention
and Visitors Bureau
201 West Marcy Street
P.O. Box 909
Santa Fe, NM, 87501

Fiesta de Santa Fe continues on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with an arts-and-crafts market and food concession booths on the Plaza and Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American entertainment in the afternoon and evenings on the Plaza stage. Friday night there's a street dance in the Plaza, and Saturday morning there's a pet parade. It's all part of the primary colors of our nation's oldest community celebration and a cherished Santa Fe tradition.

Feature and photos by Carolyn Proctor, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent.