- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

HELVETIA, W.Va. (AP) - Just a few days after prognosticating groundhogs reveal whether spring will arrive early, revelers in a small Randolph County town with Swiss origins will wear whimsical masks they made themselves and parade through town, attend a masquerade ball and then attempt to drive the cold away by burning Old Man Winter in effigy.

The event is called Fasnacht, and Clara Lehmann’s grandmother, the late Eleanor Fahrner Mailloux, helped revive the Swiss tradition and put the community’s own spin on it in the 1970s.

“When they first brought the festival over, they practiced it differently,” said Lehmann, a Helvetia native who returned to the small town with her Chicago-born husband a few years ago.

“It wasn’t a masquerade. She said children and families used to don a mask and go house to house and ask for doughnuts. It was kind of like trick-or-treat, rather than a square dance and scaring Old Man Winter away.”

But her grandmother, who Lehmann still calls “mutter” for mother and who owned and operated the popular restaurant, The Hutte, loved art and entertaining, and decided to incorporate aspects of Mardi Gras into the celebration.

“It’s an amalgamation of festivals,” Lehmann said.

And this year, Fasnacht arrives early, on Feb. 6, the Saturday before Ash Wednesday.

“It’s very early this year. Easter is very early this year,” said Woody Higginbotham, president of Helvetia Restoration and Development, an organization formed in the 1960s to restore the town that was settled by Swiss immigrants in 1869.

By about 1880, Higginbotham said, the town had 300 to 350 residents, most of them from Switzerland.

Coincidentally, Higginbotham, a native of Wetzel County, has Swiss ancestry on his paternal grandmother’s side, but he moved to Helvetia by chance in the 1970s to take a job as a teacher.

“I did not know anything about this community when I came here 40 years ago,” he said.

Higginbotham now serves as an organizer of the festival, while Lehmann’s role is one of the interest she has in preserving her culture and the event her grandmother revitalized. Lehmann even researched and wrote her senior college thesis on Fasnacht, a word that means “fast night,” which would refer to the idea of stocking up on treats before Lent arrives.

“You’re going into Lent so you have to store up the fat,” she said.

Fasnacht features a variety of activities, Higginbotham noted, starting at the The Hutte, which is now run by Lehmann’s mother, Heidi Mailloux Arnett. The restaurant will serve sample plates all day from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Helvetia - the Latin word for Switzerland - features two community buildings. Events will commence in the smaller one, the Red Hall, from 3 to 8 p.m. when musicians will participate in an open-microphone jam session.

“There will be fiddlers, there will most likely be a bass player and guitarist, and they sit around and play folk tunes and country tunes all evening,” Higginbotham said.

He likened the atmosphere to that of the Vandalia Gathering that takes place in Charleston on Memorial Day weekend, in which musicians can show up and join in.

During this event, there will be food for sale such as bratwursts, Higginbotham added. Also, for the entire day, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., visitors can peruse the Mask Museum at the Kultur Haus General Store. The masks from past Fasnacht celebrations are on display year-round, Lehmann noted, to help generate interest in the event for visitors who might stop by in the summer or another part of the year.

Even though early Fasnachts had elements of trick-or-treat, the masks for the holiday are quite different, often made of papier mache, “although that doesn’t stand up as well,” Lehmann said. “I’ve noticed people making theirs out of material that lasts longer.”

The types of masks can vary, but sometimes revelers make ones that are a bit bawdy or fanciful that might embolden them while wearing them.

“Maybe you would be dressed as a very voluptuous woman with a strange mask and you would kiss a man,” Lehmann said. “You have a license to be risque. You might make fun of a politician so you wear a mask that makes fun of somebody. So it’s a little bit like you get away with something that day.”

The masks come into play during the parade that takes place from the Red Hall to the larger Community Hall - where the masquerade ball takes place - that begins at about 8:30 p.m., lighted with Swiss lampions.

“There will be some fantastic masks,” Higginbotham said. “There is a pretty good following of people who come every year, mostly from Morgantown, and from some other places, that spend a lot of time making a mask. They really have fantastic outfits.”

Once they get to the Community Hall, the ball begins, usually at about 9 p.m. The Helvetia Star Band, of which Higginbotham is a member, plays the music that includes square dancing, as well as polkas and waltzes.

While people dance the night away - usually after taking off their masks, which would impede them - a bonfire is built about 150 feet from the Community Hall.

They also dance around the effigy of Old Man Winter that is hanging in the middle of the hall.

“He’s made out of pine and has a Halloween mask and boots,” Higginbotham said.

Around midnight, the celebrants cut him down and take him out to the bonfire in an effort to drive away winter and bring on spring.

“And then people stand around and enjoy the bonfire for a while,” he added.

On a good year, about 300 people attend Fasnacht, Higginbotham said. Snow does not seem to keep visitors away, although last year’s biting cold resulted in a small event with only about 150.

Accommodations in Helvetia are limited and mostly booked up, so people who attend from other areas can stay in either Elkins or Buckhannon, each about an hour away, Higginbotham said.

In addition to Morgantown, the event generally draws people from Charleston and even out of state.

Last year, a reporter from the National Public Radio show “The Salt” attended and did a story about the food at Fasnacht.

For Lehmann, who works from home doing film post-production work with her husband, Jonathan Lacocque, moving back to her tiny hometown and celebrating events such as Fasnacht are important to her.

“I think it was ingrained in us,” she said. “Even in elementary school, I remember my grandmother coming to school and teaching children to make papier mache masks and telling us what heritage was and who we were. As an adult, I’ve held on to that and felt that it makes me who I am and thus it’s very important to me. It means a lot. The more all of us can embrace that, the richer our lives will be.”

For more information, check out https://helvetiawv.com/events/fasnacht/fasnacht.htm

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Information from: The Exponent Telegram, https://www.theet.com

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