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Fasnacht in Helvetia

Posted by Mary Alvarez.
March 4th, 2024

Written by Dee Elliot

Today, we’ll be looking at the fascinating winter festival celebrated in Helvetia, West Virginia.  This celebration is known as Fasnacht, an annual Pennsylvania Dutch celebration that marks the ending of winter, as well as the coming of Ash Wednesday.  Much like Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras, Fasnacht precedes the Lenten period for many Catholics and Protestants that celebrate it.  However, one tiny village in West Virginia with a population of only 84 people puts on an entire festival each year to mark the passage of the seasons.  Helvetia was settled in 1869 by a small group of Swiss and German immigrants, as evident by the multitude of Swiss flags seen around town.  Every year around February or March, whenever Fat Tuesday falls, the small, usually sleepy village comes alive with hundreds of people converging on the town to celebrate Fasnacht.  In 2024, Fasnacht took place on February 13, with the festival itself taking place the weekend before on February 10.  In 2023, there was estimated to have been almost 2000 people in the village taking part in the celebration!

Helvetia Fasnacht in 1977, David H. Sutton Collection at the WVRHC

Fasnacht itself is a fascinating, unique holiday that signals not only the ending of winter, but provides an opportunity for the otherwise small community to make an impactful mark on the vast, rugged culture of West Virginia.  Starting out with a parade through town, people construct and wear creative (and sometimes frightening) masks to ward away bad spirits.  Doing this is an effort to keep winter from lasting any longer.  After the parade, everyone gathers in city hall and takes part in a massive dance for three or so hours before an effigy of Old Man Winter, the personification of winter, is cut down from his perch and dragged outside where it’s thrown onto a bonfire.  With the burning of winter comes the warmth of spring…that is, if Old Man Winter doesn’t have any more life left in him. 

One of the many masks of Fasnacht!
Old Man Winter is burned!

Before about five years ago, Fasnacht was more of a local event that didn’t really get much attention from outside the immediate area, but has dramatically increased with the release of the video game Fallout 76 in 2018, made by Bethesda Studios.  Taking place in a post-apocalyptic West Virginia, the player can take part in a virtual Fasnacht parade, complete with wearing creative (and sometimes frightening) masks.  During the Fasnacht event, one must fight off massive radioactive toads in order to keep the festivities going, and the player is rewarded with one of the many bizarre masks related to the event.

Helvetia in Fallout 76 (2018)
Fasnacht masks in Fallout 76 (2018)

The event has gotten more and more popular recently, turning a relatively unknown local event in which people would primarily privately celebrate into a must-see festival!  This year was the biggest yet, actually.  So much so, in fact, that tickets to the event sold out!  Special shirts and beer steins were made for the festival, so people can have their own little piece of Helvetia.  There is also a general store in town that, when the festival is not in full swing, has a Fasnacht mask museum that people can visit while they are in the area, as well as a Swiss/German Restaurant The Hütte Restaurant to further celebrate the origins of the villagers of Helvetia.

The West Virginia and Regional History Center is proud to have several collections concerning not only Fasnacht, but life in Helvetia as a whole.  Particularly is a great resource for anyone looking for photos of both Fasnacht and Helvetia over the years.  The David H. Sutton photo collection is also a fantastic resource for those who want a glimpse at Fasnacht and those who used to live in the area.  Not to mention in the Oral History collection, there are several pieces detailing the celebration.  While the masks may have changed since the earliest festivals, interest in Fasnacht has only gone up!  Come and take a look at our holdings about Fasnacht and Helvetia today!

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