2-8-13 US pre-Lent Fasnacht party chases off winter

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MORGANTOWN, West Virginia (AP) — New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Deep in the mountains of West Virginia, the descendants of Swiss and German immigrants have Fasnacht. It’s far smaller and much colder, 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.

“Fasnacht really brings the people out,” says Debbie Sayre, the great-granddaughter of Swiss immigrants. “ 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,” 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.

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.

The festival’s success has not, however, been able to consistently sustain the town’s cheese-making tradition.

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.”

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