West Virginia's Fasnacht festival seeks to scare away Old Man Winter
HELVETIA, W.Va. — Fasnacht is West Virginia's country cousin to Mardi Gras — not as big and brash as the storied Louisiana carnival, but a pre-Lent party with the added purpose of scaring away Old Man Winter.
In the hamlet of Helvetia, the descendants of Swiss and German immigrants joined hundreds of people from across the state on Saturday, celebrating Old World traditions dating back to the Druids and carried on through generations.
They square-danced and indulged in drink, just like the Louisiana revelers. They donned costumes and masks. They saw old friends and played music until the wee hours of Sunday morning.
But the fiddle- and guitar-driven music is distinctly Appalachian, not jazz. And with temperatures at the freezing mark, the costumes don't show any skin. The masks aren't sexy, either. They're deliberately scary.
“The whole idea is to scare away Old Man Winter,” who hangs in effigy above the dance floor until he meets his fate on a bonfire, said Aaron Williams, a native who returns every year for the festival.
Pat Johns of Morgantown has been making the 2 1⁄2-hour trek over narrow, twisty mountain roads for 23 years and has made just as many intricate masks, often winning the felt Swiss flags the judges hand out as prizes.
“It's definitely a labor of love, and over the years, it's been something that kind of consumes your life for a couple of weeks, at least, before the festival,” she said. “Everyone in your family knows it, and everyone excuses everything that you've done during those two weeks.”
The fright-fest doesn't always work: On Sunday morning, frost was still thick on the car windows and the snow lay frozen on the ground.
Helvetians say the magic takes time. But no one seemed to mind. Dozens slept deeply on the floor of the Star Band Hall, while the cooks at The Hutte restaurant whipped up a recovery brunch.
Fasnacht is also the name of a doughnut served on Fat Tuesday, a traditional sweet treat before Ash Wednesday. It's a tradition that European immigrant Catholics who settled Helvetia in 1869 initially celebrated privately in their homes, because most of their neighbors were Protestants.
Even those small celebrations died out for a while, but the practice was revived and expanded in the 1960s.
In the Helvetia Community Hall, dancers and revelers packed the high-ceilinged building wall to wall, leaving barely enough room to wriggle from the stage to the door. Every table in The Hutte was packed even at 8 p.m.
But Williams says the town always welcomes more.
“Make a mask or bring a mask,” he said. “Be ready to come and have a good time.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Hitchhiking robot’s journey west cut short in Philly
- Obama orders steeper emission cuts from power plants
- Veterans notified of info breach in South Dakota
- West Virginia on pace to issue record number of concealed-carry permits
- GOP leaders aloof as Texas Attorney General Paxton indicted for securities fraud
- CDC: 1 in 5 American adults live with a disability
- Manhunt under way for suspect in Memphis officer’s killing
- Wreckage from Challenger, Columbia goes on display
- Phoenix man accused of beheading wife, dogs jailed on $2M bail
- Finish 44-year Hamtramck housing bias case soon, judge tells lawyers
- 5,000 homes in peril of Northern Calif. wildfire