Fasnacht festival visitors gather for a photo by the fire / Photo submitted by Luke Chipps

Helvetia Fasnacht festival welcomes visitors to celebrate Spring season with masks, music, local history

Editor’s note: My Buckhannon’s Digital Marketing Manager Beckie Boyd recently took a trip to a local festival in neighboring Randolph County and would like to share a first-hand account of Fasnacht.

HELVETIA — A large crowd gathered within the small village of Helvetia last weekend for the 57th annual Fasnacht to celebrate the coming of Spring weather.

This quaint community was settled by a group of Swiss and German immigrants in 1869. Historically, the population in Helvetia has remained few. However, that does not prevent the residents from honoring their heritage during the annual Fasnacht festival. Visitors from near and far flock to the hills of Appalachia to witness this celebration.

According to the event’s website, this pre-Lenten tradition dates back to 1520 in Switzerland. For those who may not be familiar with the festival, the word Fasnacht originates from Germany and is translated to “fasting night.” This festival “combines the customs of the Swiss Fasnacht and Sechseläuten, a traditional spring holiday celebrated in the Swiss city of Zürich where they burn an effigy of winter to welcome spring.”

Helvetia is home to the 57th Annual Fasnacht Festival; it is hosted by the Helvetia Restoration Foundation / Photo by Beckie Boyd

This celebration is hosted annually by the Helvetia Restoration & Development Organization, an entity primarily made up of Helvetia natives. These natives represent the interests of the community on a volunteer-driven executive board with the assistance of a team of volunteers from across West Virginia.

“I grew up here in Helvetia. When I was a child, I attended [Fasnacht] my entire life,” said Clara Lehmann, president of the Helvetia Restoration & Development Organization and Helvetia native. “My parents, my grandmother, as well as a lot of community members were important in holding this tradition and keeping it alive so that other children within the community can continue to understand their heritage and people who want to celebrate their Swiss identity — and the tradition of Fasnacht and Lent — could be shared.”

This is the second year I have attended Fasnacht (commonly pronounced “faz-not”). With the abundance of fun we had there in the hills of Helvetia last year, my twin sister, Annie, and I knew we had to make plans to visit this year.

I attended this year’s celebration with Annie and my boyfriend, Luke Chipps. When we arrived, we were eager to witness the guests’ unique masks, see a few familiar faces and celebrate the upcoming Spring season.

Crowds of visitors lined the streets to see the small Swedish community of Helvetia. Residents there opened their doors to visitors, giving guests the opportunity to browse the Swiss Roots Community Store, Star Band Hall, the post office, a book sale at the Helvetia Library, the Helvetia Museum & Archives, a history presentation at the Helvetia Zion Presbyterian Church, dinner at The Hutte Restaurant and other establishments in the community.

As we walked toward the hustle and bustle of Fasnacht, we saw vehicle license plates from states across the east coast — North Carolina, New York, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and many more. We witnessed such warm hospitality from the locals, visitors and festival volunteers. We felt truly welcomed to be there.

The Hutte Restaurant, a popular Helvetia staple, was packed with people who desired to taste a traditionally Swiss/German sampler meal. The line of hungry patrons prevented us from filling our bellies there that evening. However, we look forward to visiting again at a later date to sample a taste. Additional food options, including food trucks and concession stands, were available for visitors at the festival.

We were able to taste food at the community hall concession stand where the hot chocolate and warm pretzels warmed our bellies that evening. To truly immerse ourselves in the culture, a taste of sweet sauerkraut smothering a delicious bratwurst was the perfect entree choice.

We’re ready for Fasnacht! Pictured left to right: Beckie Boyd and Luke Chipps / Beckie Boyd and Annie Boyd

This festival fostered a family-friendly atmosphere that welcomed people of all ages and all walks of life. As I walked around the Helvetia Historic Square, I could hear strangers complimenting with one another on the uniqueness and true craftsmanship of their costumes and masks.

The masks are one of my favorite aspects of this festival. Each uniquely-crafted mask was sure to keep first-time visitors in awe. These masks showcased one’s personality, art skills and interests with a twist on their own interpretation of the festival. The artistry of costumes filled Helvetia with vibrant colors, respect to local cryptids, as well as nods to the popular, post-apocalyptic themed video game Fallout 76 which is based in West Virginia.

“Over the last 30 years, the masks have been getting better and better,” Lehmann said. “I don’t mean just artistically better, but there’s more of them. There’s diversity of voice. There’s people coming from all over to share their art. That’s really special.”

Following the masquerade and mask contest, everyone participated in the Lampion Parade from Pickens Road onto Helvetia-Adolph Road to the location of the crackling bonfire, in preparation for the burning of “Old Man Winter”, that stands as a paper-mache effigy, or figure, of winter weather.

Old Man Winter takes one last look over the crowd of Helvetia before accepting his fate to bring on Spring! / Photo submitted by Luke Chipps

The crowd soon began to commemorate the end of “Old Man Winter” by singing the sweet melody of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Fasnacht visitors celebrate the “end” to Old Man Winter to bring on the Spring season full of good weather. / Photo submitted by Luke Chipps

To conclude the evening, a large crowd flocked to the Helvetia Community Hall for the Alpine-Appalachian Square Dance. Appalachian themed bluegrass music flowed from the windows of the Community Hall thanks to the talent of local musicians, Tessa McCoy & The State Birds of St. Albans, W. Va.

Helvetia locals offered group lessons for those who have never square-danced. I never square-danced before my first visit to Fasnacht in 2023. This year, I embraced my novice dance skills by simply having fun even though I did not know how to do the dance moves that was called over the microphone.

I was able to dance with my chosen partners — my sister and boyfriend — as well as with strangers. With such high energy and excitement, everyone in the hall was laughing, smiling, clapping and stomping their feet to the live music throughout the entire evening.

The small dance hall roared with cheers at the conclusion of each song as hugs were shared between friends and strangers. We were all a community at that time — regardless of the true locations of our homes — with an appreciation for small town Appalachia at the heart of it all.

“I’ve seen a statewide embrace of the festival [over the last 30 years],” Lehmann said. “I think it’s become more of a star for West Virginians. West Virginians are very proud of it, they see themselves in it. That has made me really proud to see. I feel very loved by our West Virginia community.”

If you’d like to learn more about the happenings of Helvetia, check out the Helvetia Restoration and Development Organization on Facebook for frequent updates about the annual Fasnacht festival, photo galleries, ongoing projects in their community and more.

Happy Spring, from the hills of Helvetia!

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