In a Tiny Appalachian Village, a Beloved Festival Returns

HELVETIA, W.Va. — As the sun set below the ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains on Saturday evening, revelers donned fantastical papier-mâché masks — a bright red creature with striped horns, a boar with a floral headdress, an autumn leaf — and marched with gusto 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 coming of spring.

Attendees celebrating along the upper Trout Run stream.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

Josh Wise took a photo of his wife, Blaire Wise, and their two children, Merritt, 4, and Shepherd, 8.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Photos of former Helvetia residents displayed during the celebration.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

Helvetia, a community of just 85 people, has hosted Fasnacht for more than half a century. The coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation last year — the first since 1967 — making this year’s celebration all the more sweet.

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

Daniel Valentine in a Vault Boy costume from the online video game Fallout 76.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Fiona Wentzel, 7, wearing a fox mask.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Peter Wentzel borrowed a mask from a festival veteran.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Naybr Don blended in with the forest in his leaf mask.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

Helvetia, like Fasnacht 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 Fasnacht weekend. The Helvetia General Store is also home to a Fasnacht mask museum.

In many parts of Switzerland, carnival — or Fasnacht — season is held in February and March. In Helvetia, it is the weekend before Fat Tuesday and draws enough visitors to swell the number of people in the town to more than triple its population.

Locals gathered before the parade and bonfire began. The festival serves as a homecoming of sorts for locals who have left Helvetia. Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Masks displayed inside the Helvetia General Store, the only store in town.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Markus Cutlip of Buckhannon, W.Va., greeting Old Man Winter before it is burned in effigy.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

While many revelers on Saturday 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, an attendee from Davis, W.Va., 76 miles away, is “homogenizing like everything else. These little pockets of uniqueness are just drying up. It’s an inevitable result of technology and progress.”

This year’s events were moved outdoors as a Covid-19 precaution. Attendees milled about the banks of the upper Trout Run stream, warming themselves around campfires and enjoying rosettes and Fasnacht doughnuts, traditional Swiss sweets. Visitors lined up to peek inside a log cabin decorated with artifacts from some of Helvetia’s original settlers.

And on Saturday evening, as the last bits of Old Man Winter were consumed by flames, festivalgoers joined in an a cappella rendition of the beloved John Denver anthem “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Some attendees carried candles and lanterns as they marched through town.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Festivalgoers marching across the upper Trout Run stream toward the bonfire. Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Revelers watched as the ashes of Old Man Winter rose above Helvetia.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

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