Friday, September 5, 2008

Old Man Gloom

New Mexico is home to a bevy of odd traditions, most the result of the cultural melting pot borne of the state's Hispanic, Native American and Anglo populations. Some of those celebrations are amazing to behold (a pueblo fiesta) while others are hopelessly arcane and even cruel (cockfighting is rampant throughout the state; lawmakers finally got around to banning it last year.) And then there's the burning of "Old Man Gloom," known as Zozobra... which falls somewhere in the middle, with a healthy dose of the surreal thrown in for good measure.

Much like the stuccoed strip malls that line most Albuquerque streets today, Zozobra was the result of a white guy's interpretation of a centuries-old Indian tradition. From the official Zozobra Web site:
Local artist William Howard Shuster, Jr. - "Will" (1893-1969) conceived and created Zozobra in 1924 as the focus of a private fiesta at his home for artists and writers in the community. His inspiration for Zozobra came from the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico; an effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, was led around the village on a donkey and later burned. Shuster and E. Dana Johnson, a newspaper editor and friend of Shuster's came up with the name Zozobra, which was defined as "anguish, anxiety, gloom" or in Spanish for "the gloomy one."

The effigy is a giant animated wooden and cloth marionette that waves its arms and growls ominously at the approach of its fate. A major highlight of the pageant is the fire spirit dancer, dressed in a flowing red costume, who appears at the top of the stage to drive away the white-sheeted "glooms" from the base of the giant Zozobra.

Each year, Zozobra goes up in flames on Santa Fe's Fort Marcy Park during the first week after Labor Day. They even sell tickets now... and the hours leading up to Old Man Gloom's burning are filled with songs and dancing, and generally good-natured merriment.

Despite having lived in the state for 12 of the last 15 years, I've never been to a Zozobra burning. I so wanna, one of these days. But for several years now, my family has held our own private "Zozobra" burnings. I even took the tradition with me to Dallas.

For the actual burning of Zozobra, citizens are allowed to place scraps of paper -- on which they've written down their fears, anxieties, and disappointments -- in a large box located at the base of the 50-foot marionette. Some bring divorce papers, or copies of discouraging medical reports. These then go up in flames, right along with the rest of The Gloomy One... carrying those concerns away in the smoke and ash.

The Finfrock clan has always appreciated that tradition. So each year, we make our own 'Zozobras,' on sheets of paper filled with what scares us, and the troubles plaguing us and others we know. Over the years, those have grown to be pretty big sheets of paper.

This year has been a trying one for all of us, as it has been for many in this country and throughout the world. Perhaps our problems aren't as bad as those of a refugee in Darfur, or a poor farmer in Georgia (the state, and the former Soviet Republic.) But the past several months have still been very difficult for many of us... filled with uncertainty about the our health, job situations, and overall well-being, to name a few worries.

And absolutely, those concerns deserve to burn in a funeral pyre.

Below is my personal "Zozobra," which admittedly isn't as impressive as the real one. I put more time into listing all my fears and worries, than I did in its creation. And this year, like all the others, it was very satisfying to see them all go up in flames.

At least until my smoke detector went off. Another years-long tradition.

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