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Amid local rains and regional floods, in the aftermath of fiery sugar tax debates and in the face of rising political and racial tensions, escalating concerns about nuclear warfare and lingering shock over an armed attack closer to home, this year — like every year — Zozobra burned.
For some, the 93rd incineration of Santa Fe’s favorite scapegoat was an appropriate opportunity to release the strains of a year filled with turbulence, both in the community and across the nation.
For others, it was a reminder that even in divisive times, people can come together.
The number of people who gathered Friday night at the Fort Marcy Ballpark for the burning of Zozobra seemed to rival last year’s record-setting crowd of more than 55,000 people, even as rain threatened to dampen the festivities.
“We might have a lot more gloom this year than in other years,” said Jack Butler of Florida, who happened to be in town with his wife on the night of the burning. “In the end, we all really need to have some fun.”
“We’re all here for the same thing,” said his wife, Candy, who was sitting on a picnic blanket next to him. “Letting go.”
Old Man Gloom, created by artist Will Shuster in 1924, has borne the blame for onlookers’ woes and has been sacrificed for the sake of rejuvenation for nearly a century, kicking off the city’s Fiesta de Santa Fe celebrations. Year after year, the giant marionette is stuffed with partygoers’ foul memories — troubles written on scraps of paper, wedding dresses and tax forms — and ignited by a celebratory fire dancer.
John and Angelica Rael, both 23-year-olds from Santa Fe, have been attending the event since they were children — and stuffing Zozobra full of their gloom. Watching their worries go up in smoke was especially poignant Friday night.
“Our daughter is currently really ill,” John Rael said. The child is only 2 months old. “I put in there for her to get better.”
Out-of-town visitors Danny and Christine Chavez didn’t stuff the monster themselves. But the California couple said they appreciated the symbolism and relevance of burning the effigy — especially this year.
“We have too many wars,” Danny Chavez said. “We have economic problems, we have political problems and weather — we have everything. It’d be nice to get rid of some of that.”
Haleigh Shell of Santa Fe said family members affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas were weighing on her mind. “This definitely would be one of those things that I could come to knowing everybody is OK, and let go of all that grief and all that worry,” she said.
This year marked Zozobra’s fourth year with a theme centering on a particular era as part of the Decades Project, a 10-year endeavor celebrating Zozobra’s history. The project will culminate in 2024 with its 100th birthday.
Last year, a Zozobra attendee told The New Mexican she was slightly put off by the World War II theme of the 1940s-based event, which featured the sounds of falling bombs and whizzing planes, and the odd sight of Gloomies, played by child actors, marching into the celebration in a Nazi-like goose step.
This year was a bit more jubilant, a nod to the 1950s.
Zozobra was dressed in a buttoned-up tan cardigan sweater and jeered at by torchbearers in lettermen jackets. He was ushered out with a mashup of ’50s hits like Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and at one point appeared to be dancing the twist.
The pyrotechnics display seemed like it could last until the end of the Fiesta de Santa Fe, and at one point a curtain of fireworks surrounded Old Man Gloom before fireworks eventually ignited in his head, blew out of his thumbs, and flames consumed his torso.
The ’50s theme was a nice throwback for 85-year-old Dolores Fidel, who grew up in Santa Fe and has missed very few Zozobras in her time.
“I got married in the ’50s. I had children Karl Joseph Authentic Jersey in the ’50s,” Fidel said. “It was a good decade for me.”
Rain fell on the audience around 7 p.m., but when burn time rolled around close to 9:45 p.m., the crowd covered the sports turf of the Fort Marcy baseball park and stretched all the way across the expanse of nearby Magers Field.

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