HELVETIA – Around 100 people traveled from all over the Mountain State-and even out of state-Saturday to celebrate Fasnacht, a traditional Swiss holiday coinciding with the beginning of Lent.

According to Helvetia’s official website, “Fasnacht is the pre-lenten burning of Old Man Winter.

“It occurs on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and is likened to Mardi Gras” and “it has its roots in the Swiss Winterfest.”

In Switzerland, it takes place on Fat Tuesday the day before Ash Wednesday; however, in Helvetia, locals traditionally host the festivities the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday.

Heidi Arnette, a resident of Helvetia, says that the event stems from an old Swiss tradition, similar to trick-or-treat, where citizens would dress up in masks to scare away Old Man Winter and welcome spring.

“We started holding Fasnacht here around 1969 as part of the village’s Centennial celebration and it started small, just a few handfuls of people,” Arnette says. “It wasn’t until word-of-mouth spread to local colleges and communities throughout the state that it ended up growing to include hundreds of people from all over.”

The event began with a visit to the Hutte Restaurant, where patrons were treated to some hospitality and some tasty Swiss cuisine, featuring a sampler plate including marinated chicken, bratwurst, sausage in tomato and wine sauce, parsleyed potatoes, sauerkraut, green beans, homemade bread and butter and peach cobbler.

Several people mingled around Star Band Hall to enjoy an open mic full of traditional Appalachian old-time music and dance, drinks, brats and fun.

But, of course, when one asks about Fasnacht, the likely response will be in regard to the elaborate-and sometimes frightening-masks and costumes used to scare away Old Man Winter. Many of the people this year took weeks or even months to create their masks using all kinds of materials.

Wolfgang Boyer, of Lancaster Pennsylvania, created his mask out of hickory bark and deer antlers and said it took him about 2 weeks to make.

“This is my first time, and I’m loving every minute of it,” Boyer said.

Buckhannon native Aaron Williams and Brooke Nantz of Morgantown dressed respectively as a rotten eggplant made of purple fabric and a crying onion, made of panty hose.

“This has become a staple for me,” Williams said. “I’ve been here for several years now and I never miss it.”

“It’s crazy that something like this happens in a small place like this,” said Brain Carr of Fairmont, what was experiencing Fasnacht for the first time this year. “If you blink, you’ll miss it. But it’s great to see people come out and enjoy small town hospitality.”

At 8:30 p.m. those in costume gather in front of the Star Band Hall for the Lampion parade. Carrying candlelight lamps, they travel down the road to the Community Hall for the Masked Ball where this year’s batch of masks are judged and prizes are handed out. Masks can also be donated to the Helvetia Mask Museum to be on display for patrons every year at the General Store.

Through all of the merriment in the Community Hall, the effigy of Old Man Winter hangs above from the ceiling. At midnight, Old Man Winter is torn down and burned on a large bonfire outside of the Community Hall, welcoming spring and the end of the cold winter months.

“It’s an awesome celebration,” Joseph White, who is originally from Helvetia said. “The people here love it as much as those that travel from out-of-state.”

“The people are great; the food is great,” Collette Marchesini, of Washington D.C. said. “We started coming here in 2006. Now we have two carloads of people that come along with us. We will definitely be coming back next year.”

Contact Chad Clem by email at cclem@theintermountain.com.