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Kultur Haus Helvetia
The Fasnacht Mask

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Photo of a person wearing a Fasnacht Mask.

What is lurking behind these masks? No, no demonic spirits, just regular folks like you and I, on one certain day of the year, the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the day we call Fasnacht, which we celebrate here in Helvetia. During this one day is a time to let loose, drink beer, hide behind the mask, be someone else, and forget about the consequences; party until late into the night, before the Lent observances begin.

This custom was brought here from the old country by Swiss and German settlers. Fasnacht has the same roots as other pre-Lent festivals such as Martigras and Carnival. Our Helvetia version has been moved from Shrove Tuesday (the eve of Ash Wedesday, which is the beginning of Lent) to the Saturday before. The main event here in Helvetia, West Virginia is a Saturday night dance, preceded by a lampion parade leading to the dance hall (lampions are a crude form of lanterns, candles housed in paper, suspended from a stick). At the dance hall, those in costume parade around the floor for photos and prizes. After that, the festivities roll with what we call “square dancing” which is not the dainty western dancing, but is an athletic mix of peasant folk dancing and Appalachian circle dancing.

At midnight the dance ends when we burn “old man winter” in effigy on a bonfire outside the dance hall in a futile attempt to shorten winter (it usually backfires).

Over the years, Fasnacht masks with ample artistic merit have accumulated. So we are displaying them here for your pleasure and ours. For the real thing, come join us in the dead of winter (usually in February) on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. If your creative vibrations are stirred, make a mask, wear it at the dance hall, have a blast, and add it to the collection here.

- Joe McInroy