Sunday, 25 August 2013 19:09

The Peefee Meets Zozobra

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Zozobra and Glooms, 1949.  Photo by Peter Stackpole Zozobra and Glooms, 1949. Photo by Peter Stackpole


In 1953, I belonged to a Cub Scout pack in Santa Fe.  My mom was the Den Mother and had the responsibility of keeping ten 8 year old boys engaged and focused on Scout activities.  I have to admit that I was more interested in the uniform than I was the various tasks, but since completing the projects got you more patches and made your outfit cooler, I persevered.  That fall, she announced that we were to be Little Glooms during the Fiesta burning of Zozobra.

The burning of Zozobra (Old Man Gloom) is one of the more bizarre public celebrations in America.  Predating Nevada’s Burning Man event by 60 years, he was created by artist Will Shuster in 1924 as an artistic addition to the Santa Fe Fiesta, which was celebrated then over Labor Day weekend.  By the time I was a boy, the event had become the signature beginning of the Fiesta on Friday night.  The week before, we would eagerly await his transport to Ft. Marcy Park and his hoisting to the site of his execution.  My dad would tell us stories about how he had been captured in the mountains above town and was being held until he would be condemned and sentenced to burn.  He represented all of the bad thoughts and events of the year and his demise would clean the slate and give everyone a fresh beginning.  I totally believed him.  I still do.

At dusk on Friday night, the entire town gathered at the park.  Zozobra, 35 feet tall, loomed above everyone, emitting the occasional groan and pointing an accusing finger at his tormenters.  A mariachi band played at his feet.  Illuminated by spotlights, he became increasingly animated and his groans were louder and more frequent.  When it was almost dark, all of the lights, save 1 spotlight, went out and the execution commenced.  A group of about 20 kids, dressed in white sheets as miniature Zozobras, slowly walked up the platform and lined up at Zozobra’s feet.  He roared his disapproval and one could imagine him trying to snatch them up and eat them.  After the Little Glooms were in place, the Fire Dancer, dressed in red, arrived and begin to weave around the monster’s feet, taunting him with fiery torches.  Throughout the dance, the crowd became more and more frenzied, screaming “Burn him!  Burn him!”  After about 10 minutes, the dancer put his torch to the hem of Zozobra’s gown and the giant began to burn.  As the flames rose, his moans and groans became shrieks and screams, until the flames burst from the top of his head and the noise subsided.  By this time, everyone was cheering and the skies behind the charred remains were starred with a magnificent fireworks show.  When it was over, everyone walked down to the Plaza and Fiesta began.

Now, for an 8 year old kid, the opportunity to be a part of this and stand at Zozobra’s feet during his immolation was the equivalent of Christmas morning.  Our moms made our costumes out of white sheets from Bell’s Department Store and, the week before Fiesta, we had 2 dress rehearsals at the park so that we would know where to go.  It was, after all, a bit dangerous with all the flames and fireworks.

Friday evening came and it was showtime!  We all lined up and waited for our cue.  It came, and up the steps we went, with me bringing up the rear.  That’s when it started to go bad.  My sheet was too long and I tripped and fell on the stairs.  This caused the shroud over my head to cover my face so that I couldn’t see where I was to go.  Zozobra by now was making so much noise that I couldn’t hear the adults yelling at me.  When I finally got my act together I was all alone on the stairs.  I looked around, saw the rest of the Glooms and ran toward them.  Bad idea.  Fueled by adrenaline, I fell again.  And a third time.  If Zozobra had wanted to, he could have picked me up and torn me limb from limb.  By the time I got into place the Fire Dancer had appeared and we exited.  I took off my sheet as we left, lest I fall into the flames.  Of course, this made me stand out like a sore thumb among the other Glooms.  I will say that the experience of watching him burn from 50 feet away somewhat made up for the humiliation but the damage had been done.  My stature in the peefee world was rising and I don’t think that the taunting stopped until Easter.

Today, it’s one of my most precious memories.

Note:  The word peefee is unique to Santa Fe and its origins are from the nickname given to a slight, effeminate and very flamboyant waiter named Epifano who worked at the Mayflower Café in the 1930s.  The word came to mean weak, unmanly or timid.

--Mike Lord

Read 6079 times Last modified on Tuesday, 14 August 2018 17:19
Mike Lord

4th generation Santa Fe Gringo.


  • Comment Link Kent G. Hansen Saturday, 30 August 2014 16:11 posted by Kent G. Hansen

    Great story Mike. I had a very similar experience as a gloom. I even got hit on the head by a falling fireworks canister. My mom was our Cubscout "Den Mother". My sheet was ripped of by another kid and I got pretty upset!

  • Comment Link Mike Lord Tuesday, 10 September 2013 00:51 posted by Mike Lord

    Thank you, Ed. Being a child in Santa Fe was a unique experience, que no?

  • Comment Link ed Saiz Monday, 09 September 2013 22:57 posted by ed Saiz

    I want to let you know what a great story this is. I keep
    reading and each time I enjoy it even more. I guess it is
    because I had the kind of luck in my childhood for this
    kind of thing or at least similar to happen to me.

  • Comment Link Raven Q. DeVille Monday, 26 August 2013 13:40 posted by Raven Q. DeVille

    Mike, thanks for the nice complement you gave me. I have been enjoying your stories also!
    Being a kid was pretty weird, wasn't it?
    Any embarrassment during our formative years was an earth-shattering event that affected everything in our small little world. When these things happen to us as adults, we have the wisdom of age to just laugh about them (and then write them down). .
    I can only hope that becoming senile will be fun too. Ha ha

  • Comment Link Jim Baca Sunday, 25 August 2013 23:40 posted by Jim Baca

    Great story!

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