Celebrating Fasnacht, the pre-Lenten tradition, in West Virginia’s mountain village of Helvetia

By Autumn Shelton, RealWV

HELVETIA, W.Va. – The residents of Helvetia, a tiny village located in the heart of the Appalachian mountains in Randolph County, embody the enduring spirit of their Swiss and German ancestors. 

Today, the air buzzes with anticipation as the community prepares for Fasnacht, a pre-Lenten celebration that draws in thousands of visitors who wish to say goodbye to the cold days of winter through an evening of great food, music, square dancing, mysterious masks and the ceremonial burning of Old Man Winter. 

But, according to Clara Lehmann, a native of Helvetia, there is much more to Fasnacht than meets the eye. 

Fasnacht provides an open invitation to those who wish to shake the burdens of everyday life, become their true selves, and honor the heritage of those who came before. 

Lehmann grew up in Helvetia where she attended the nearby Pickens School, one of the smallest in the nation. 

Although she left the area for a while to attend college, she returned in 2012 to raise her family and champion community growth. Alongside her husband, she founded Coat of Arms, a film production company, where they have captured the essence of life in Helvetia and the Appalachians. 

Her documentary, “Born in a Ballroom” and the shorter “Called Home,” tell the tale of the town’s Hütte Restaurant and her grandmother, Eleanor Mailloux, a visionary leader who dreamt of preserving Helvetia’s culture for generations to come through the Helvetia Preservation and Restoration Organization. 

Fasnacht is a vibrant fundraiser for this organization, which supports community projects and cultural education, Lehmann said. 

“Funds have helped us do a lot of work for the community, like adding hot water and a bathroom to the Star Band Hall as well as paint and put a roof on the Helvetia museum with traditional shingles,” Lehmann stated. “It allows us to make sure that the kids, if they want to, can learn about the special Swiss Fahnenschwingen, a tradition of swinging the flag in the air like a dance, and more. The goal is to keep our heritage alive. We are slowly building up a treasury to continue to do that for our community.” 

Lehmann continued that Fasnacht is a German word that means “fasting night.” 

“The big fast is coming for Lent and, the night before, you have a big party. There is a relation of Fasnacht to Mardi Gras, Carnival and other worldwide traditions of the feasting before the fasting,” Lehmann said, adding that Fasnacht is a bit different because it is more of a secular tradition. 

“There is a naturalist quality to it,” she said. “It celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring. In Swiss culture, tradition allows us to come together communally, release something, and to be ready to get through the rest of winter.” 

“Fasnacht is more like the celebration seen in Basel, Switzerland,” Lehmann added. “It’s a big parade where people wear masks, go in troupes and imbibe in libations and dance.” 

Traditionally, Helvetia’s Fasnacht was much smaller in scope, at least until the arrival of a popular video game in 2018. 

“Fasnacht has become a real fascination, nationally, after being featured in the game Fallout 76,” Lehmann said. “In the game, Helvetia is a place you can visit, with radioactive sloths and crazy things. It was designed to look like the town, and it’s all there. You can even celebrate Fasnacht in the game online with friends.” 

“Fasnacht has always been a pretty popular celebration in West Virginia and the surrounding region, but what we’ve seen is more of an intense interest,” she continued. “Last year, for example, we estimate there may have been 2,000 people that came. We didn’t know they were coming.“

As a result, some changes to Fasnacht have occurred, but the event still remains a traditional Swiss celebration that all began when the first settlers arrived in the rugged terrain of West Virginia. 

“They were starting to build a community, but it was a lot of hard work,” Lehmann said of those original settlers. “They were trying to hold onto their traditions, like all immigrants do.” 

Anna Chandler, one of several of Helvetia’s historians, discussed the town’s history. 

According to Chandler, the first settlers arrived in Helvetia in 1869.

“It was just after the Civil War and West Virginia was looking for ways to increase the state’s population,” Chandler explained. “Land agents were hired to recruit people, and one of them traveled to Switzerland.” 

A small group of Swiss residents decided that they would come and see what West Virginia had to offer. 

“The virgin wilderness reminded them of northern Switzerland,” Chandler continued. “It was abundant in natural resources, timber and wildlife. A lot of them held positions like jewelers, bakers, cobblers and different things like that, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with a virgin wilderness, but they decided to make a go of it anyway.” 

They built a small cabin where they stayed until the spring. Then, they headed to New York, the largest port of entry for immigrants at that time, and recruited others to join them. 

“Fourteen men and one woman, Ms. Asper, decided they would come settle,” Chandler said. 

This group rode the train to Clarksburg, the nearest station to Helvetia, and had to walk the rest of the way. 

“They got there in late October, when it can and it has snowed every month of the year, but they made it through the winter,” Chandler stated. “They would build and move into their own houses before the next group would arrive and stay in the original cabin until a community was made.” 

“That’s how we all kinda got started,” Chandler said with a laugh, adding that throughout the years, those first residents had to learn to work together and embrace their neighbors–a tradition that continues to this day. 

“We might look at you a little funny, but we will take you in,” Chandler said of those who make the trip to Helvetia. “Everybody takes care of each other.” 

At its height, Helvetia had a population of about 1,000 people, but now that number is down to around 30-40, Chandler noted. 

“There is very little economic opportunity for younger people. At one point the timber and coal industry was very strong for people, but that’s fallen off.” 

Tourism to Helvetia became popular in the 1960s, when people began to realize that a small, isolated community still existed in the mountains, Chandler said, adding that people from Switzerland and Germany will make the trip to Helvetia and are often amazed at what they find. 

“They get tickled when they arrive because it reminds them of home,” Chandler said. 

Even though the population has dwindled, there has been a renewed interest in Helvetia, and some members of the younger generations, like Clara and her family, are returning, Chandler added. However, the future of Helvetia is “a big question mark.” 

“The answer may lie in tourism,” Chandler said, noting that events like Fasnacht are no doubt helping. 

“I love watching folks come through the archive building and the museums because they see somebody or something they recognize. Just watching their face light up with that is so cool,” Chandler said. 

“I’ve always thought that culture is understanding where you came from, and it helps your direction moving forward,” Chandler continued. “As a historian, if you don’t study history at least a little, you are going to be doomed to repeat a lot of those bad things that happened in the past. So, I think keeping the culture that we have in Helvetia going — I think there’s some opportunities that are going to come out of that that we don’t necessarily see right now. But, I think if we can at least keep some of this going then it will be to the benefit of the future, to learn about how and why things were done.” 

In its current form, Fasnacht started around 1967, Lehmann noted. Prior to that, the event was celebrated a bit differently. 

“Helvetia would celebrate privately,” Lehmann said. “After being stuck in their homes all winter, the kids would don masks and go door to door asking for Hozablatz or Rosettes and sing while the adults would drink wine and spend time together. 

Heidi Arnett, Clara’s mother, further explained the early Fasnacht tradition.  

“The early celebration was us going house to house with a fiddle and having a glass of wine while eating a Rosette or Hozablatz,” Arnett said. 

Rosettes are made out of flour and animal fat, which was becoming scarce by the end of winter, she explained. A Hozablatz is a traditional pastry made by rolling dough out on one’s knee before frying. It is then sprinkled with powdered sugar. 

“We still celebrate a little with cheese and wine,” Arnett laughed. 

Due the Fasnacht’s ever-increasing popularity, and because of the town’s small size, visitors to the celebration must pre-order tickets to help event organizers ensure it remains fun for all who attend, Lehmann added. 

“We are trying to aim for a sustainable number,” Lehmann said. “The fact that so many people attend is spectacular and a compliment to the people who envisioned it. It’s something that people feel like they need and want to do.” 

This year, Fasnacht takes place on February 10, and lasts from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m.

Those who attend the celebration can visit a merchandise booth, attend a book sale at the library, research ancestry at the Helvetia archives, visit the museum to see items from the original settlers, take a village tour and learn about its history with resident Dave Whitt and even attend a discussion at the local Presbyterian Church on the secular and religious marriage of Fasnacht. 

Visitors can also bring their instruments and jam inside the Star Band Hall with fellow musicians, eat at the Hütte Restaurant, and enjoy various other food vendors. 

“It’s very community oriented and people here feel embraced, like you can be yourself and I think that’s our point,” Lehmann said. 

Just before nightfall, the party gets amped up even more when the masquerade begins. 

“This is the spectacle and what everyone really comes to see,” Lehmann said. “Some of these masks have been three to six months of work. They are colorful or scary–sometimes they are very strange, but a true art form.” 

The masks represent the event’s cultural significance of scaring away Old Man Winter, Lehmann explained. 

“The only thing we ask of people who attend is that their mask be homemade. The reason why is the effort and the practice in making a mask has a lot of catharsis to it. We think that you can learn a lot about yourself by making a mask. There’s a really cool statement made by a local mask maker; ‘When we’re masking, we’re really revealing.’ I think that tradition is what we are trying to aim for.”

“You should be putting on a mask that you made with your very own hand, but you are also going to reveal something that is in your psyche, or something you’ve dealt with in the past year, or something that you see in the news that you want to make fun of,” she continued. “Maybe you just want to be scary and scare away Old Man Winter, or maybe you want to be beautiful and show there is kindness in the world. That’s what we are hoping to get from these artistic masks.”

Once the masked parade is over, and awards have been handed out for best mask, it’s time to say goodbye to Old Man Winter, who has been patiently waiting in the town’s gazebo for his big moment. 

Jill Zurbuch, a retired guidance counselor, was tasked with making Old Man Winter this year. 

“Old Man Winter is a pretty big deal,” Zurbuch said. “Old Man Winter is this creature who is a little bit evil and wicked, like the winter can be. We carry him in a big celebration and throw him into a fire.” 

To make Old Man Winter, Zurbuch said she has been using natural materials, like newspaper, paper towels, cardboard and burlap. 

When she spoke with RealWV, Zurbuch had the seven foot tall Old Man Winter lying on her kitchen table — his paper mache mask drying before a nearby heater. 

“Some of the past Old Man Winters have been elaborate, but some are rustic and some are works of art,” Zurbuch said. 

“I have tried to make a Nordic theme and keep it somewhat traditional. He will look a little scary when I get done with him,” she added. “I’m hoping he will look piercing–with piercing blue eyes–and just a little scary. I think that’s the idea.” 

“You use what you have and I see why,” she continued. “The old pioneers and the Swiss that came here, they had to use what they had to make new. We all do that, we reuse everything — even bread twist ties.”

According to Zurbuch, Old Man Winter was once thrown on the bonfire at midnight, but now he burns at 7 p.m. This is when the square dance begins. 

The square dance this year will be held from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m., Lehmann noted. Tessa Dillon and the State Bird Fiddler Players will be leading the dance. 

While those in Helvetia are anticipating a large number of visitors this year for the celebration, the locals will no doubt take the time to remember how this event came into existence. 

“I think it’s just that we pull together and celebrate this occasion, and everybody has a great time,” Heidi Arnett said. “It’s a great opportunity to highlight our heritage, which is very important to us. We have wonderful people who attend. Most people are very kind and understand that we are so tiny — they are very happy with what we can offer, which is sometimes not everything.”

Lehmann added that this is also a celebration of the people of the Mountain State. 

“The parade is a celebration of West Virginians, who are blessed with many talents — that are often hidden from the world.” 

To learn more about Helvetia, or to purchase tickets for Fasnacht, visit the Helvetia Preservation and Restoration Facebook page at:  https://www.facebook.com/HelvetiaRestoration/


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