Fastnacht festival returns, one year after Covid cancellation

HELVETIA, W.Va. — As the sun set below the Appalachian ridges on Saturday evening, revelers donned fantastic papier-mâché masks — a bright red creature with striped horns, a boar with a floral headdress, a leaf autumn – and marched enthusiastically in an outdoor masquerade ball.

The celebration included Swiss folk songs, tiny Swiss flags and paper lanterns. It culminated in a parade through the streets of the village, led by an effigy of Old Man Winter, which was then thrown atop a raging bonfire, in an effort to hasten the arrival of spring.

Helvetia, a community of just 85 people, has hosted Fastnacht for over half a century. The coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation last year – the first since 1967 – making this year’s celebration all the sweeter.

Doug Davis, a longtime festival organizer and public school teacher, seemed excited about the festival’s return. “Covid has killed community spirit,” he said. “But here we are, recovering.”

Helvetia, like Fastnacht itself, has Swiss roots. The village was settled in the 19th century by Swiss and German immigrants, and the buildings feature traditional Swiss architecture. Hütte, a traditional Swiss restaurant, serves bratwurst, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and potatoes. The Beekeeper Inn is booked months in advance for Fastnacht weekend. The Helvetia General Store also houses a Fasnacht mask museum.

In many parts of Switzerland, the carnival season – or Fasnacht – takes place in February and March. In Helvetia, it’s the weekend before Mardi Gras and attracts enough visitors to swell the number of people in the city to more than triple its population.

While many Saturday revelers said they were relieved to see the tradition return, some described a sense of urgency in their desire to experience what may be West Virginia’s most unusual community celebration. Appalachia, said Joe Holmes, a participant from Davis, W.Va., 76 miles away, “is homogenizing like everything else. These little pockets of uniqueness are drying up. It is an inevitable result of technology and progress.

This year’s events have been moved outdoors as a precautionary Covid-19 measure. Attendees strolled along the banks of the upper Trout Run stream, warming themselves around campfires and enjoying rosettes and Fasnacht donuts, traditional Swiss treats. Visitors lined up to peek inside a log cabin decorated with artifacts from some of Helvetia’s early settlers.

And on Saturday night, as the last tracks of Old Man Winter were consumed by flames, festival-goers joined in an a cappella rendition of John Denver’s beloved anthem “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

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