The weird Alpine tradition you can also find in Appalachia
The Appalachian hills of West Virginia might not have too much in common with the rocky, soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps— but you wouldn’t know that visiting Helvetia.
Settled by Swiss and German immigrants in the mid-1800s, this small, remote village is like a little slice of Switzerland with traditional food, buildings and unique events.
Helvetia’s most distinctive, traditional festival is the late-winter celebration of Fasnacht.
This celebration, which takes place the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, is a much older Alpine version of more famous winter-spring events like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras or Brazil’s Carnival. They’re all rip-roaring parties where revellers don masks, dance, parade and get all their mischief out before hunkering down for the Catholic tradition of Lent.
But while Mardi Gras and Carnival are strongly tied to southern and tropical climates, Fasnacht‘s traditions come from regions with winter weather that time of year— like the Appalachians and the Alps.
The celebration is centered around the ritual “burning of Old Man Winter” as a symbol of a quick arrival of spring.
Sound strange? Keep reading for the details!
The typical Fasnacht in Helvetia begins mid-Saturday morning. Wander around town, and make sure to drop into the Kulture Haus museum to check out the best homemade masks from Fasnachts of years past.
In the afternoon, head over to the Star Band Hall for open-mic music and traditional Swiss food. At dark, get ready for the candlelit parade from the Star Band Hall to the Community Hall.
After dark, things start getting really crazy! A masked ball it kicks off, with revelers flaunting every imaginable style of paper mache mask as they dance jigs, polkas and waltzes. Some crafty folks go all out with the masks: more intricate ones even move or have their own special effects.
In the center of the dance hall, an “Old Man Winter” mannequin dangles from the ceiling. At the stroke of midnight, a fiddler announces that it is time to finally end the reign of Old Man Winter.
The tallest man in the room lifts up the prettiest maiden, and she cuts the figure down! The entire crowd then takes the fake Old Man Winter out into the snow, where he is thrown onto a huge bonfire. The celebration continues as he keeps the fire burning into the wee hours of the morning.
These sorts of celebrations are very deeply rooted all over the world, likely dating back to ancient end-of-winter festivals.
If you want a bit of Old-World traditional fun this year, head into the mountains of Helvetia.
What would your Fasnacht mask look like?
This post was last updated on July 17, 2020