Helvetia Fasnacht: Small West Virginia Community Keeps its Swiss Culture Alive

16 February, 2018

High up a long, winding road in the Appalachian Mountains, a small village is hidden among the hills and forest.

Red Swiss flags hang from the tops of Swiss-style buildings. Above some of the doors are signs with German messages. "Folgen sein seligkeit" reads one, meaning "follow his bliss." Among the businesses is a large Swiss restaurant.

Visitors could, for a moment, think they were in Europe. But no, this is Helvetia, West Virginia, in the United States.

The sign welcomes visitors to the small town of Helvetia, in West Virginia.
The sign welcomes visitors to the small town of Helvetia, in West Virginia.

A beautiful mix of Swiss and Appalachian

A group of settlers from Switzerland settled Helvetia in 1869. West Virginia had only been a state for six years.

Anna Chandler works for the Helvetian Archives, which records the history of the town through photos and documents. She says West Virginia's government was seeking to increase the state's population in its early years. So, she said, state employees traveled to the city of Bern, in German-speaking Switzerland. There they found people willing to travel to West Virginia and build a community.

Helvetia has remained small to this day. And it also stayed true to its cultural roots. Or as Clara Lehmann, a member of the Helvetian Restoration and Development Association, explains, "Helvetia is like a beautiful mixture of Swiss and Appalachian."

Because of Helvetia's remoteness, traveling to or leaving the town was difficult, says Chandler. This has helped the town keep its strong Swiss identity.

"Just that isolation makes it very difficult sometimes to bring new things in. So part of the fact that a lot of those traditions are still here is just because there was not a way for them to leave."

As of the most recent official count, 59 people live in Helvetia. Many are direct descendants from the original Swiss settlers.

Lehmann's great grandfather, for example, was among the first Swiss settlers of Helvetia. She says that everyone on her mother's side of the family grew up in Helvetia.

Lehmann herself left Helvetia for a few years for school and work. However, she says she always felt a pull to return, and in time, she surrendered to it.

Fasnacht: Guarding Swiss traditions

Part of those traditions means the town celebrates several Swiss holidays every year. The largest and most festive is called "Fasnacht."

It has Catholic roots.

"Fasnacht is a Swiss tradition, the root of the word is "fasting night", it's a tradition that you practice before lent. You're essentially gorging yourself and having excess right before you're going to be very austere. Just like Mardi Gras and Carnival."

Helvetia's Fasnacht is observed on the Saturday before the start of the Christian period of Lent. Lent always begins in February or March. This year, Fasnacht took place on February 10.

In the town's early history, Lehmann said, Fasnacht was only celebrated privately at home or with friends. However, in 1968, Lehmann's grandmother, Eleanor Maillouix, and friends decided to make the festival a larger event for the town.

As word of the event spread through West Virginia, Fasnacht grew in popularity. Now hundreds of visitors come from surrounding communities to join the locals at the yearly party.

The celebration begins in the afternoon when local musicians gather at Star Band Hall to play music. Crowds come to eat, drink and enjoy the sounds of live old-time, folk, and country music.

Later in the evening, people move outside and put on many different homemade masks. Similar to Mardi Gras, the Fasnacht masks represent escape from one's identity. This permits more freedom in behavior.

"We prepare masks in secret, in our homes," Lehmann said. Then, she said, mask wearers parade through town, to the community hall, holding candle lampions.

Inside the community hall, a model of "old man winter" hangs. The masked marchers walk around it, trying to frighten winter away so that spring will come. At that point the masks come off, the local Red Star Band plays, and the dancing begins.

Helvetia is known for dancing, and during Fasnacht, they demonstrate both their Appalachian and Swiss culture through square dances, waltzes, and Swiss polka dancing. Everyone is expected to dance. In Clara Lehmann's words, "If you don't know how to dance, it doesn't matter, because somebody's going to teach you."

At midnight, the music stops. Partiers cut down old man winter, carry it outside, and throw it on a big fire.

"That is supposed to say ‘welcome spring, get out of here winter.'"

Food is also important for Fasnacht. During the day, the town's only restaurant, the Hutte, prepares Swiss-German food. This includes Sauerbraten, bratwurst, and Swiss cheese. Locals also prepare rosettes, a traditional Swiss pastry made with fried dough, which they serve during the dance.

Keeping the culture alive

Tradition is important to the people of Helvetia, who have always valued community, says Anna Chandler.

"This event that Helvetia and some of the other communities around do through the year, lets folks come home and celebrate the way they knew as a kid, or as they remember their grandparents talking about."

Continuing these traditions in Helvetia does have its difficulties. Economic problems in West Virginia have made it difficult for Helvetians to find jobs. The population has decreased over the years.

But those still living in Helvetia refuse to let their culture disappear.

"You have to really fight to maintain a tradition. But I think that's what's really cool about Helvetia is we're super stubborn...and we want to hold onto the Swiss identity... We see the value of holding on to some of these traditions that speak to your soul and... that elevate your experience of life, so I think that's why we continue to do it."

I'm Phil Dierking.

And I'm Caty Weaver.

This story was written by Phil Dierking for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Do you have any old traditions that your community still celebrates? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

austerity – n. a simple and plain qualit

bratwurst – n. a type of fine German pork sausage that is typically fried or grilled.

descendant – n. someone who is related to a person or group of people who lived in the past

excess – n. an amount that is more than the usual or necessary amount

festival – n. a special time or event when people gather to celebrate something

gorge – v. to eat large amounts of food

identity – n. the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others

isolation – n. the state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others : the condition of being isolated

lampion – n. a small lamp

mask – n. a covering for your face or for part of your face

midnight - n. 12 o'clock at night

remote – adj. far away

sauerbraten – n. a dish of German origin consisting of beef that is marinated in vinegar with peppercorns, onions, and other seasonings before cooking.

winding - adj. following a series of curves and turns