Fiesta de Santa Fe

Fiesta de Santa Fe

Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: Weekend after Labor Day Weekend
Where Celebrated: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Symbols and Customs: Fiesta Ball, Historical Reenactments, Parades, Roman Catholic Masses and Procession, Zozobra


The Spanish founded the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1610. In 1680, the local Pueblo Indian people revolted against the Spanish conquerors and drove them from the city. Spanish soldiers retook the city in 1692, led by General Don Diego de Vargas. De Vargas prayed before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that the Spanish had rescued and taken with them before abandoning Santa Fe to the Indians. He implored the Blessed Virgin for aid in recapturing the city. When success crowned his efforts, he vowed to see the statue, dubbed "La Conquistadora" (the Conqueror), honored in Santa Fe. In 1712 the Spanish governor Marquez de la Penuela established the Fiesta de Santa Fe to commemorate the reoccupation of the city by the Spanish. This early starting date makes the Fiesta de Santa Fe one of the oldest civic festivals in the United States.

As a historic holiday, Fiesta de Santa Fe commemorates a significant historical event. People throughout the world remember significant events in their histories. Often, these are events that are important for an entire nation and become widely observed. The marking of such anniversaries serves not only to honor the values represented by the person or event commemorated, but also to strengthen and reinforce communal bonds of national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Victorious, joyful, and traumatic events are remembered through historic holidays. The commemorative expression reflects the original event through festive celebration or solemn ritual. Reenactments are common activities at historical holiday and festival gatherings, seeking to bring the past alive in the present.

Fiesta is a Spanish word meaning party or festival. In Spain and other Spanishspeaking countries, most towns and cities have a fiesta that celebrates the existence of the town and honors its patron saint. These fiestas usually include both religious ceremonies and secular celebrations featuring music, food, dancing, fireworks, and other fun activities. The Fiesta de Santa Fe is a good example of this kind of festival. The earliest records of the Fiesta de Santa Fe indicate that it was mostly religious in nature, featuring special Roman Catholic masses and religious processions. In 1882 more elaborate celebrations took place to commemorate the 333rd year since Europeans arrived in New Mexico. The festivities included a reenactment of the return of the Spanish into the city, in which local people acted the roles of General de Vargas, Franciscan monks, soldiers, and noble ladies and gentleman. In addition to these characters, many other people marched in seventeenth-century costume, demonstrating the modes of transportation and occupations of that era. Similar HISTORICAL REENACTMENTS play an important role in today's festival.

In 1924 a local artist named Will Shuster added a new element to the Fiesta de Santa Fe. Shuster and his friends thought the festival had become too commercial and too somber in its tone. He constructed a large effigy of a bogey man out of wood, burlap, and paper, calling it Z OZOBRA , a Spanish word that locals have loosely translated as "Old Man Gloom." Shuster and his friends burned Zozobra at the start of the festival, as a symbolic means of casting out any sadness, gloom, and disappointment experienced during the past year. In developing the Zozobra burning event, Shuster was inspired by the Yaqui Indian Holy Week custom of burning an effigy of Judas that was filled with firecrackers. Shuster's innovation caught on with the people of Santa Fe and has been an important element of the festival ever since. Will Shuster continued to build Zozobra until 1964, when he turned over his plans for the construction of the effigy to the local Kiwanis Club. The Kiwanis have built Zozobra and managed the burning event since that time.

The Santa Fe Fiesta Council plans and manages the rest of the events that take place during the three-day festival. In addition to the special events that characterize the Fiesta de Santa Fe, food booths are set up in public gathering places and performances of mariachi and other kinds of music take place throughout the three-day festival.


Fiesta Ball

The Fiesta Ball caps off the celebrations and provides participants with one more opportunity to celebrate the gloom-free period initiated by the burning of Zozobra. Organized by the Santa Fe Fiesta Council, the ball is held in a local hotel or convention center and features Mexican-style music.

Historical Reenactments

Each year a young man is chosen to represent General de Vargas and reenact his triumphant entrance into Santa Fe. Dressed in seventeenth-century Spanish garb, the young man and his retinue parade through the streets until they reach the central plaza in downtown Santa Fe. The retinue includes soldiers, Catholic monks and priests, and the Fiesta Queen and her princesses. The men ride horses while the young women walk, dressed in beautiful Spanish-style gowns of the period. When they arrive at the Plaza, they perform a small reenactment of the meeting between de Vargas and the leader of the Pueblo Indians. Speeches of welcome are made, and afterwards bands perform for free on the plaza.

The following day the Fiesta Queen, chosen yearly from among the civic-minded young women of Santa Fe, gives a royal audience at the Plaza.


The children's pet parade has been a favorite festival event for the past sixty years. Approximately 1,500 people and their pets have taken part in this parade in recent years. Dogs, cats, goats, lambs, roosters, rabbits, turtles, birds, rats, llamas, and guinea pigs have all participated in this popular event. The children and their pets wear clever costumes that could earn them a prize. The judges give awards in the following categories: most original, best historical, best hysterical, best child/pet look-alike, best message to other kids, best musical group, best family entry, best fiesta theme, and best story book character.

In addition, another, more adult-oriented parade also takes place during the fiesta. This parade features floats that satirize local politicians or depict local history.

Roman Catholic Masses and Procession

Roman Catholic masses are scheduled to open and close the festival weekend. What's more, La Conquistadora is still honored during the course of the fiesta. Dressed in rare fabrics, lace, and jewels, the statue is enshrined in a place of honor in St. Francis Cathedral. In recent years Roman Catholic officials have changed her name to Our Lady of Peace in order to shift her association with war and conquest to an association with peace and cooperation. In addition, Church officials have added a mass of reconciliation to the religious ceremonies that take place during the fiesta. This mass of reconciliation emphasizes the need for peaceful cooperation among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. A candlelit procession takes place to mark the close of the festival.


The burning of Zozobra kicks off the three-day festival. Members of the Santa Fe Kiwanis Club construct the 50-foot effigy in the three weeks preceding the festival. Approximately 3,500 volunteer hours are required to finish the project. The volunteers cover a wooden framework with chicken wire and muslin and stuff it with paper. The paper stuffing includes such things as completed loan and mortgage papers, police reports, and legal documents pertaining to divorces and other unpleasant events; these papers represent the sorrows that the people of Santa Fe want to leave behind them. Finally, the cloth covering is painted and decorated to look like a gloomy, glowering old man.

The burning of Zozobra takes place around sundown on the first evening of the festival. A small ceremony takes place before the burning in which a male dancer dressed in red, called the Fire Dancer or Fire Spirit, dances around Zozobra. The Fire Dancer taunts Zozobra with flames and wards off other dancers in white sheets, who are called "glooms." The assembled crowd yells "Burn him," until the Fire Dancer succeeds in setting the giant effigy alight. A fireworks display follows.

The burning of Zozobra attracts between 20,000 and 30,000 spectators. The Kiwanis Club charges admission to the event, and uses the money to send disabled kids to summer camp, to provide scholarships for teens graduating from Santa Fe high schools, and to fund its Children's Orthodontics programs.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Nott, Robert. "Fiesta Forever, Dancing Our Troubles Away." Free New Mexican. September 1, 2006.


Library of Congress Local Legacies

Santa Fe Fiesta Council

Santa Fe Kiwanis Club
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Santa Fe, Fiesta de

September, weekend after Labor Day
The Fiesta de Santa Fe is a religious and secular festival said (without much argument) to be the oldest such event in the country. It dates to 1712 and recalls the early history of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Spanish conquistadores were ousted from Santa Fe in 1680 in a revolt by the Pueblo Indians. Led by Don Diego de Vargas, the Spanish peacefully regained control in 1693. Vargas had promised to honor La Conquistadora, the small statue of the Virgin Mary that is now enshrined in St. Francis Cathedral, if she granted them success. The first procession was held in 1712 to fulfill that promise.
The festivities start the Thursday night after Labor Day with the burning of Zozobra, or Old Man Gloom, a 50-foot-high fabric and wood effigy whose yearly immolation began in 1926. Thousands watch and shout "Burn him!" when the effigy groans and asks for mercy. Fireworks announce the end of Gloom. The next morning there is a mass. Then comes the grand procession: Vargas and the fiesta queen, la reina, lead the way on horseback to the town plaza, escorted by the Caballeros de Vargas, Vargas's guards or manservants, who are also on horseback.
Afterwards, spectators make their way to the plaza for the start of three days of dancing, street fairs, a grand ball, and a parade with floats satirizing local politicians. The fiesta ends Sunday night with a mass of thanksgiving and a candlelight procession to the Cross of Martyrs overlooking Santa Fe.
Santa Fe Fiesta Council Inc.
P.O. Box 4516
Santa Fe, NM 87502
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 624
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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References in periodicals archive ?
"Elvis Romero and Fiesta de Santa Fe featuring Zozobra's Great Escape" is a study of history from Andrew Leo Lovato about this annual festival that has been celebrated for three hundred years, commemorating the reconquest of New Mexico by Don Diego de Vargas.