HELVETIA — Butter sizzles and grease pops on the stove. The beginning sounds of a fiddle, guitar and harmonica blend and find rhythm. Toes tap and people sing in anticipation of the arrival of aliens, political figures — even a mammoth. They will come in the form of about 200 costumed revelers, pushing the town’s population to about 225.
On the Saturday before the beginning of Lent, the village of Helvetia, high up in the Randolph County mountains, is transformed.
Thirty-five miles from the closest town, Helvetia was claimed by Swiss settlers in 1869. Helvetia is Latin for Switzerland. Although only a few dozen people actually live in the village, the inhabitants count the population closer to 100, based on how many Swiss families are still living in the surrounding area.
Those that are left hold tightly to their heritage, and part of that heritage is the celebration of Fasnacht.
Flags fly and beer and bratwurst are on hand. Likened to Mardi Gras, Fasnacht is a celebration to chase away evil spirits and promote fertility. As it’s celebrated in Helvetia, it is combined with a second Swiss tradition, the burning of Old Man Winter at midnight. Old Man Winter’s demise is eagerly anticipated in a place where the season can make the roads in and out all but impassable.
The celebration starts at 1 p.m., and the people come for the music, food and community. The buffet at The Hutte restaurant is filled with quiche, cheese, mashed potatoes — hearty foods that prompt delighted sighs from diners.
Before the beginning of Lent, believers clean the fat from their cupboards, so people come to the festival to feast on foods that put meat on their bones. But the dancing that follows will take care of some of the excess.
Sirens wail as a local sheriff leads the lampion parade. Lighted paper balls on sticks illuminate masked children and adults as they make their way several blocks through town to Helvetia Community Hall.
There, an old-time band is already in a groove that includes square dances, waltzes and yodeling songs.
Hanging above the dancers (the skilled and the not-so-skilled) is an effigy of Old Man Winter, who watches fondly in spite of his imminent doom.
At midnight the dancing ends, but the party continues. The effigy is cut down and carried out to a waiting bonfire, where the crowd celebrates, and cheers fill the night.
Does this conflagration end the season?
Eleanor Mailloux, manager of The Hutte restaurant, remembers dozens of Fasnachts and recalls one when the burning took place on a beautiful night, and the town woke up to a blizzard the next day.
Luckily the success of Fasnacht does not rest on the accurate prediction of the seasons. It’s a chance for the community and visitors to remember and experience a valuable heritage.