Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

This Saturday is Fasnacht, a wildly pagan, pre-Lenten festival takes place in Helvetia, a tiny town deep in the West Virginia Appalachians that was settled by the Swiss in the 1860’s. It is like Mardi Gras in a cold snowy land: revelers parade through the town wearing terrifying homemade masks and carrying lanterns lit by candles. They dance for hours to the strains of fiddle music under an effigy of Old Man Winter hung from the rafters of the community hall. At midnight Old Man Winter  – made of pine boughs and old clothes – is thrown onto a roaring bonfire and burned, and his demise is celebrated throughout the night.

For many, Fasnacht is the culmination of months of crafting their costume out of paper mache and elaborate wire constructions, fueled, in part, by the chance to compete with their extraordinarily inventive peers, and for a prize. For others, their costume is impromptu, fashioned at the last minute from whatever is at-hand that will transform them for the night, as they hide their true selves to become, for a few liberating hours, someone else…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider/Old Man Winter

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Fasnacht is only one of many manifestation of Helvetia’s unique culture: part Swiss, part Appalachian. You see it in the architecture: clapboard with a Swiss sensibility…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

…in the town’s only restaurant, the Hutte, where the traditional foods of the town’s early Swiss – like sauerbraten, crisp rosti potatoes and peach cobbler are served with locally made beer. A version of Swiss mountain cheese is made in Helvetia, and children grow up knowing how to yodel.

You can catch a glimpse of it in this video of Eleanor Mailloux, proprietor of the Hutte and guardian of Helvetia, and her 30-something grandson Willie, as they they describe Fasnacht’s ancient roots and meaning……and why Helvetia remains such a rare and beloved place…

Fasnacht from American Festivals Project on Vimeo.

It is a strangely beautiful piece of America that anyone can witness if they are willing to brave the winding mountain roads…

-Click here for information about Helvetia’s Fasnacht festivities, and driving directions.

-The video is from American Festivals Project. You’ll find a photo gallery there as well.

Listen to NPR for a description of  what Fasnacht is like.

-Wikipedia has an interesting “anthropological interpretation” of Fasnacht (though it is not well documented).

-Here’s an article about Helvetia Sally wrote for Saveur years ago.
Related post: A (Mind) Game for Cultivating Resourcefulness

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10 replies on “fasnacht: wild + creative antidote for winter

  1. I went to college nearby and always loved going to Helvetia – both for Fasnacht and brunch at the Hutte as often as I could justify. It always amazed me how such a tightly knit community could be so generous in including others; I always felt welcome there. I remember an article you did a couple years ago about Eleanor’s pickles; any chance you picked up her homemade sausage recipe? My mouth is watering just thinking about it…

  2. Hi Becca. You described it perfectly: always a welcome. I’m afraid I don’t have Eleanor’s sausage recipe but over the years have published recipes for Mary Hick’s Cornbread, Rhubarb Custard Pie, and Eleanor’s Applesauce, which has a whisper of horseradish and little pieces of lemon…The Saveur piece was about Spring in Heletia – with a big section on a pickle lesson i was given. You can find some of it on Saveur’s website (they’ve left the credits off some of the article, which I’m trying to get them to fix. Thanks for writing!

  3. How funny to read about Fasnacht in America. I am from Basel, Switzerland, where the Fasnacht will start on Monday the 22. February this year- or the three most beautiful days as we call it. Fasnacht here in Basel isn’t really very similar to the Fasnacht in Helvetia tough, but then there are big differences how Fasnacht is celebrated at different places in Switzerland too. But something which every Fasnacht everywhere probably has in common- or carnival or whatever you call it- that it brings out a lot of creativity and thats a wonderful thing.

  4. Sorry, my English is bad, but I hope you will understand what I am writing. I am from Zofingen, Switzerland. I like all the news from Dave Whipp (I subscribed to his newsletter). I love your little town and I hope that I will be able to visit Helvetia sometime.

  5. Thank you for writing; your English is fine. There will be another wonderful festival coming up at the end of April: the Helvetia Ramp Festival, in honor of the first wild food of spring (wild leeks). Last weekend in April. It is WONDERFUL. We will do a post on it soon.

  6. I can’t wait to visit your wonderful town and celebrate my husband’s heritage. See you in a few weeks. Linda and Richard Fasnacht

  7. My goodness! You actually have the name Fasnacht…(The same name as the wild winter celebration we wrote about last February)!! So you’ll be heading to Helvetia for the celebration? I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it this year…Please send a report. It is one of the most amazing things… — Sally

  8. I visited Helvita several years ago and thought it was the most amazing place in the world. Sorry that I have not be able to attend the ramp supper (I love ramps) or Fasnacht. It looks like such fun. I hope to get back there someday. Actually wish I could live there.

  9. Sally Schneider:
    I read your article on Ramps & Ramp Festivals.
    This might interest you.

    Those wonderful Ramps (Wild Leeks) are coming soon !

    Here is an original song & video about those tasty veggies.
    I think you’ll enjoy it and may want to pass it on to your readers.

    E-Mail or phone me for more information
    Also, I could attach a QR code Should you want to use it.

    Skip Niebauer
    The Loose Change Band, Erie

  10. Saludos, Sally, desde Valladolid, Yucatán. It is a joy to see Cuatlicue again after all these years…and in all that beautiful snow and cold. That was a wonderful festival!

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