A celebration that is almost 300 years old has certainly had time to age and mellow…but that’s not to say that one can call burning a 40-foot tall puppet a mellow way to start a festival! Moving the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe some years ago from the Labor Day weekend to the second weekend in September certainly made a difference in attitudes, however, and has allowed the town to recapture more of the local homegrown flavor that had disappeared back when the two holidays coincided.
In the simplest terms, Fiesta de Santa Fe is an annual celebration that recognizes the Spanish re-conquest of the City Different by Don Diego de Vargas after the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680. Naturally, the Native American population of New Mexico has a different perspective on these events. La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assis was originally established by Don Juan de Oñate at San Gabriel in 1598 and was moved south to the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1610. After seventy years of colonization, the Pueblo Indians revolted, burned the city and drove out the settlers, who fled to what is now Juarez, Mexico. Twelve years later, in 1692, the King of Spain appointed Don Diego De Vargas to organize a campaign for the resettlement of Santa Fe, which was accomplished by September of 1692. In December of the next year, the Indians again rose up when De Vargas returned from a recruitment effort aimed at expanding the colony, so the Don set up a camp near the present site of the Rosario Chapel, at the NE corner of Guadalupe Street and Paseo de Peralta. Don Diego placed a statue of the Blessed Virgin, now known as La Conquistadora, on a makeshift altar and prayed for her intercession to help him successfully re-enter the town center. By the end of December 1693, De Vargas had led his triumphant forces back into the City of Holy Faith, and since that time, La Conquistadora has been venerated for her assistance. While this special symbol of Mary is publicly processed during Fiesta, she can be visited throughout the year in the historic St. Francis Cathedral, where she has her own place of honor in the Basilica.
As befits the origination of Fiesta, specific religious events are observed by Santa Fesinos and visitors alike. While pre-Fiesta events take place all summer, the celebration officially begins with the Pregon de la Fiesta, a reading by Mayor David Coss of the Proclamation of 1712, along with a Mass for the faithful at the Rosario Chapel, taking place this year on Friday, September 10 at 6:00 a.m. A pontifical Mass, usually celebrated by the Archbishop, takes place on Sunday morning, September 12 at 10:00 a.m. in the beautifully renovated Cathedral.
And Fiesta closes with a Mass of Thanksgiving and the annual walk to the Cross of the Martyrs on Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. The candelight walk, in particular, is an authentic way to capture some of the timeless flavor of Santa Fe, as hymns are sung and rosaries recited along the way up to the Cross on the Paseo de Peralta. This is a time to reflect on the good fortune we enjoy, living in such a magical place, with a blend of cultures, a long and memorable history, distinctive architecture, delicious regional cuisine, and peopled through the years with a cast of colorful characters.
As time progressed, the religious roots of this home-town celebration have become inexorably mixed with more secular affairs, leading to a large roster of events that take place all summer, the most unusual being Zozobra, artist Will Shuster’s contribution to the mix. One of Santa Fe’s many unique characters, Shuster was one of Los Cinco Pintores, a group of artists who settled in Santa Fe early in the 20th century, drawn by the wonderful light, the rugged terrain and the sense of freedom alive in the American West. Also known as Old Man Gloom, due to the Spanish term used to name him, Zozobra has delighted Santa Fesinos since his inception as a backyard entertainment for Shuster and his friends. The inspiration for this creature came from Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico, in which an effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, was led around the village on a donkey and then burned. Who knew that our version would grow to almost 50 feet tall and send his own tweets? Will Shuster donated the rights and complete instructions for the Burning of Zozobra to the local Kiwanis Club in 1964. Since that time, the Kiwanis have used Zozobra as a major fund-raising event for both college scholarships and local youth projects. This artistic and memorable endeavor has endeared Mr. Shuster to generations of locals who may never have seen one of his more “serious” works of art. Pretty nice legacy!
Pre-dating Nevada’s Burning Man by more than a half-century, our “burnee” is a giant animated marionette made of wood and cloth who waves his giant arms madly and groans mournfully at the inevitable approach of his annual fate. His appearance and vocalisation are always a subject for Friday morning critiques. Stuffed with reams of flammable material, Zozobra also welcomes divorce papers, report cards and all manner of gloomy wishes into the recesses of his interior, where they will also be consumed by the flames that ultimately send him up in smoke. To announce his impending annihilation, a fire spirit dancer, dressed in a flowing red costume, appears at the top of the stage to drive away white-sheeted “glooms” who roam at the base of the poor effigy. The fire dance was said to be created by Jacques Cartier, a former New York ballet dancer who became a local dance teacher and performed the role for an unbelievable 37 years, but the role was apparently first portrayed by the unsung Rosina Muniz. One of Cartier’s dance students, James Lilienthal, inherited the headdress in 1970 and continued dancing for 32 years, passing the honor on to his daughters, Doenika and Katy. The fire dance is currently performed by Helene Luna. Now there’s a gig I’d like to have….talk about exorcising your demons!
The Burning of Zozobra, pagan as it is, has become a lasting fixture of the Santa Fe Fiesta. While you can watch Old Man Gloom’s demise on local access television (Comcast Cable Channel 16 or 208) or streaming live on the web at 8:30 p.m., there really is no substitute for experiencing it in person. Visitors, however, should take careful note: this is definitely not an event for sensitive young children or agoraphobics; with literally thousands of excited fans shouting “Burn him! Burn him!” this can be a frightening and perilous experience. With that caveat, it must still be said that you’ll never see anything like this, so if you’re game, park far away (you’ll have to anyway), wear comfy shoes, maybe bring a rain poncho (it does happen), hold hands, don’t be in a hurry to rush on or off the field, and all will be well. The event takes place in Mager’s Field at Fort Marcy Park and starts in the early afternoon on Thursday, September 9, with live music and entertainment for those who choose to hang out on the field until the actual torching, which does not occur until dusk (that’s about 8:30-9:00 p.m.) and is followed by a fireworks extravaganza.
Once the gloom has been banished, it’s time to come, bebe y disfrutele! That is, it’s time to eat, drink and be merry! The heart of our town, the Santa Fe Plaza will be all gussied up and ringed with arts and crafts, food booths and tchotke vendors. The Bandstand on the Plaza will be the center of all-day entertainment beginning on Friday, September 10, and you can expect to see the locals in their Fiesta garb meeting up with friends for that once-a-year indulgence in Navajo fry bread (oh, all those calories!). Don Diego de Vargas and La Reina, along with the entire Fiesta Court will make their Entrada onto the Plaza at 2:00 p.m. on Friday.
The Plaza Bandstand is also the ultimate destination for the two annual Fiesta parades, with judging and prizes for participants. The first, officially El Desfile de los Ninos, but more commonly known as the Pet Parade, takes place on Saturday, September 11 at 9:00 a.m. This family-friendly event should not be missed, although probably some pet participants would really love to miss it! The route goes right by the Inn, so if you are staying here, all you have to do is walk outside after breakfast. The kids and pets will come in all kinds of inventive costumes, the local school bands will be playing, as will the wildly colorful Los Alamos Hillstompers, and candy will be raining down on the curbside spectators.
Sunday the 12th brings the annual Hysterical-Historical Parade, a lot of fun or a bit of a bust, depending on who is roused to participate. Taking place at 1:00 p.m., this is an opportunity for politicians to have face time before elections and for locals to satirize with pointedly funny floats and commentary on social issues affecting the city and the planet. More bands, more candy, more laughs, followed by more street sweepers. What’s not to love?
And we cannot forget the annual Fiesta Melodrama, with only a couple of performances remaining. Yet another chance to skewer local movers and shakers, this production is written by an amalgam of Santa Fe’s creative souls each year and takes place at the Santa Fe Playhouse. While the melodrama may be more targeted at entertaining the residents of our fair city, it nonetheless provides a chance to see local talent in a local theatre in a local neighborhood as part of a local event. Two performances remain, Saturday, September 11 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, September 12 at 2:00 pm.m.; reservations are recommended as each performance is selling out.
Well, you probably get the gist, this Santa Fesina loves Fiesta! Arriving in Santa Fe on a long ago Zozobra night and camping comfortably up in Hyde State Park, I rolled down into town to grab a bite to eat with absolutely no knowledge of what was about to occur. Needless to say, I was, and remain, mesmerized, and I have the Fiesta dresses to prove it. From the Thursday night ritual sacrifice to the contemplative Sunday night walk, Fiesta de Santa Fe always marks the beginning of another año especial in this magical outpost of the Old West. Vivan Las Fiestas! Que Viva!