Why the Fasnacht? A visit to Helvetia, W.Va.

Ever since a couple years ago when I heard of Fasnacht, a pre-Lenten celebration in the Swiss-heritage community of Helvetia, West Virginia, I’ve wanted to go. This year I got to go and shoot video.

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Helvetia is a tiny town of fewer than 100 people in the mountains of Randolph County. The residents are descendants of Swiss and German immigrants and the town has kept many of their traditions. Every year on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, they have a big celebration where they wear masks, play music, dance and drink. The party ends at midnight when they burn an effigy of Old Man Winter.

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Old Man Winter

Fasnacht is a happy time for residents, who in winter are typically in a sort of hibernation mode, one of the residents there told us. The winters there are typically so cold and snowy that people don’t leave their houses for days. Plus the festival brings hundreds of visitors to a town that typically has few. It’s not quite the coming of spring, but it means its closer.

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A jam session early in the night

Some of the masks that people have made through the years are really impressive. These are just a couple that are on display at the mask museum/general store.

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Masks on display at the mask museum/general store.

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Another impressive mask

The majority of the night was spent square dancing, which I don’t know how to do, so I watched. As a friend who was there Saturday told me, the people take their dancing pretty seriously.

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Helvetia’s Star Band Hall

There were a ton of people and they were all squished into a tiny space, so inside it got warm rather quickly. Though the weather was warm on Friday (80 degrees in Charleston, where I live) winter had returned to Helvetia on Saturday. Outside the town hall, the snow fell and temperatures dipped into the 20s. Relief from the heat and the dancing was as close as the bonfire that was building outside the town hall. A crowd gathered there to drink and wait for Old Man Winter.

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What I think is interesting about Fasnacht, is its mix of cultures. Helvetia has lots of Swiss traditions, but Fasnacht is very West Virginian, too. There was lots of old-time music. I think we sang “County Roads” at least three times and at one point around the fire, people were chanting a familiar chant that disparaged a WVU rival. It doesn’t get much more Mountain Mama than that.

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An original cabin that belonged to one of the town’s settlers

Coverage of Fasnacht is running in Wednesday’s Gazette-Mail, and there’s a photo essay in Saturday’s edition.

PS: If you’re going to Helvetia, the West Virginia State Wildlife Center, located about a half hour away from there, is definitely worth a stop. It was all sorts of wildlife that are native to the Mountain State. The animals are kept in spacious enclosures, but you can see wolves, mountain lions, elk, bald eagles and more in just a short walk around the center.

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