Published February 07, 2013
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Deep in the mountains of West Virginia, the descendants of Swiss and German immigrants have Fasnacht. It's smaller by thousands and colder by about 40 degrees, but it's more than just a last hurrah before Lent.
On Saturday, hundreds will make the trek over winding country roads to Helvetia, a community now so small it can barely be called a village. (Population 59 in the 2010 census.) They will don papier-mâché masks — mostly homemade and scary — for a 15-minute candlelight parade. They'll dine on sausage, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese imported from Ohio but made the old-style way, and they'll dance to Appalachian music at a masked ball.
At midnight, they'll rip Old Man Winter from his spot above the dance floor and toss his effigy into a bonfire to chase away winter.
"Of course, usually that backfires," says Debbie Sayre, who has cooked at the town's only restaurant, The Hutte, for 36 years. "It can be 50 degrees on Saturday and you'll wake up Sunday morning and there's snow."
The forecast calls for rain and snow Friday, followed by colder weather in the 20s to mid-30s Saturday. Regardless, Sayre figures she'll serve up at least 200 Swiss sampler plates, and she'll keep serving until the food runs out.
"Fasnacht really brings the people out," says Sayre, the great-granddaughter of Swiss immigrants. "It doesn't matter if there's 2 feet of snow. They love it."
Fasnacht, German for "first night," is also the name of a doughnut served on Fat Tuesday, a traditional sweet treat before Ash Wednesday.
It's a centuries-old tradition that European immigrant Catholics who settled Helvetia in 1869 initially celebrated privately in their homes, as most of their neighbors were Protestants.
"But then even that faded out for a long time," New Hampshire author David Sutton said. He grew up in Helvetia and did oral histories with residents in the 1980s before publishing "Helvetia: The History of a Swiss Village in the Mountains of West Virginia."
In the '60s, "when it became kind of a neat thing to have a culture," Helvetia went through a revival, Sutton says.
People like the late Eleanor Fahrner Mailloux, who owned The Hutte and died at 93 in 2011, began exploring and reviving their local history and customs. The town's centennial in 1969, Sutton says, "was sort of a big kick-off to a renaissance."
That's also when the tradition changed to include folk music and dancing. It was condensed from several days or a week to a single Saturday, when most people are off work.
Today, Sutton says, "it's quite an amalgamation of European and American traditions," more secular than religious.
It's part reunion, drawing native children back home for a weekend. Kevin Betler's daughter is a doctor in Morgantown now and has to work this weekend, but some of the friends she brought home with her from college will be at Fasnacht.
Betler runs the Kultur House, a building that also houses Helvetia's General Store, Post Office and Mask Museum.
He says Fasnacht is also part tourism.
"It's considerably bigger than it used to be," he says. "It used to be just the locals, but Eleanor really got the word out and promoted it."
That's good for the few businesses in town: The Hutte, the Honey Haus, Alpenglow Handmade Soaps and the six-bedroom, one-bath Alpen Lodge.
Typically, people book the town's few rooms a year or more in advance. Those who don't want to drive a half-hour to the nearest motel in Mill Creek can pay $5 to put a cot or sleeping bag on the floor of the Star Band Hall after the open mic session wraps up.
The festival's success has not, however, been able to consistently sustain the town's cheese-making tradition.
State legislators tried to help, passing a law in the late 1990s to exempt cheese-makers in Helvetia from the requirement to use pasteurized milk it they were selling less than 5,000 pounds. But Betler says it's tough to sustain a steady supply of fresh milk in Helvetia, and cheese-making is a seven-day-a-week process.
"It's not really feasible to transport milk in," he says. "You've got to have the milk locally, and that's hard because there aren't as many farmers as there used to be."
Still, the other traditions remain. Betler expects them to neither die nor expand much.
"I look for it to be just the way it is right now," he says. "As the old ones quit coming, the new ones start coming. ... We like our tradition, and the way we do it."