Zozobra: A Fire That Never Goes Out

On display through Sep 30, 2025

Burning Farewell to Summer

The burning of Zozobra is an annual celebration held on the Friday of Labor Day weekend in Santa Fe. The beloved Zozobra, a towering, monstrous 50-foot marionette, is stuffed with slips of paper onto which people have scribbled their most pressing concerns. The crowd cheers as Zozobra goes up in flames. This fiery farewell to summer represents the release of the city’s pent-up anxieties and gloom and hope for a better future.

In honor of the centennial burning of Zozobra, held on August 30, 2024, New Mexico History Museum debuts Zozobra: A Fire That Never Goes Out, an exhibition which examines the history of the so-called “Old Man Gloom.” The burning of Zozobra might seem like a quirky spectacle to some, but the History Museum exhibition will provide historical context, exploring the event’s origins, evolution, and broader significance.

From Backyard Burn to Community Tradition

As a shared experience, the ritual of Zozobra is a powerful binding force for spectators, and the annual production has always been a joint endeavor. Zozobra was cooked up by Santa Fe artists who wanted to inject a sense of play into the didactic observation of Santa Fe Fiestas.

The upcoming anniversary marks Will Shuster and his friends’ first backyard burn of a much-smaller marionette in 1924. Rather than arising only from their singular imaginations, Zozobra was inspired by existing regional folklore, including Mexican and Yaqui traditions of burning Judas effigies during Holy Week.

Transformation and Legacy

Since 1926, Zozobra was burned publicly as part of (or before) the annual Santa Fe Fiestas. In 1964, Shuster transferred sponsorship of the event and rights to Zozobra’s image to the Kiwanis Club. By passing the torch to a community organization, Zozobra was transformed, placing a shared trust for sustaining the tradition while also becoming a major fundraiser for local children’s charities.

Preserving a Cultural Performance

Zozobra’s intangible, ephemeral nature—the object burns to the ground every year—makes it all the more important to preserve this cultural performance for future generations. Co-curator Hannah Abelbeck says, “For me, this is an opportunity to tell a very distinctive story about communities, in Santa Fe and beyond. Our exhibition research shows again and again evidence of creativity, collective effort, and ongoing care. Zozobra is about building and sustaining something unique in New Mexico, and about our hope, each year, for a better next one.”

Exhibition Highlights

The objects on view in the exhibition include the flaming red Fire Dancer hat worn by former New York City Ballet dancer and fire dance creator, Jacque Cartier, who performed the role for 37 years; a ceramic koshare-inspired Zozobra figure by Virgil Ortiz, on loan from the Albuquerque Museum; and never-before-seen images from The Santa Fe New Mexican. The exhibition attempts to highlight the historical and collective aspects of the burning of Zozobra but is also chock full of iconic depictions of Santa Fe’s favorite villain. Additional objects and ephemera on loan from community members include an original Zozobra burning party invitation, piñatas, candles, and Zozobra portraits.

A People’s History

“This exhibition could be considered a people’s history of Zozobra, centering the community’s contributions and creative output,” says co-curator Delaney Hoffman. “By incorporating into the exhibition submissions like memorabilia and stories from the public, the museum hopes to highlight the roles many have played in shaping and sustaining this tradition.”

Image credit: Zozobra installation, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Courtesy New Mexico History Museum, Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 106728.

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