Fasnacht: The death of Old Man Winter
“Let’s burn him! Let’s burn Old Man Winter!” could be heard as the crowd grew in size surrounding the bonfire on a cold, West Virginia winter evening. As a life-like figure made of twigs and rags is lowered into a fire, the group yells ecstatically. To some this scene would seem a bit barbaric and may strike a little fear or at least a little concern, but to those locals and repeat visitors, it is just another Fasnacht in Helvetia.
Helvetia is a wee bit isolated by any means and lies in southwest Randolph County in a tiny valley near the headwaters of the Buckhannon River. This old world-style community was settled in 1869 by staunch German Swiss immigrants who came from Switzerland. They brought with them a culture steeped deep in traditions and folklore. Cheese making, embroidery and music were some of the many arts that flourished. German Swiss celebrations have survived through the years as well. One of the more intriguing celebrations is that of Fasnacht, or the burning of Old Man Winter. It occurs every February as the last wild indulgence before Lent. Lent is the ancient Christian period of reflection, penance, self-denial and fasting with abstinence from meat. It begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts 40 days until Easter.
Fasnacht is a typical Mardi Gras style event that combines the Protestant Winterfest with the more traditional Catholic celebration. In Helvetia, crowd favorite dishes such as hosenblatt pastries and fried doughnuts are prepared and are plentiful. The Helvetia Community Hall is decorated with candles, lanterns and ribbons. Fasnacht partygoers dress in costume and a select few don paper mache heads and masks. Fasnacht masks are made from various materials such as foam, wood, chicken wire, clay and fabric felt. As revelers dance to music and join in song, darkness falls and shadows lengthen across the valley. At midnight it is announced that it is time to burn Old Man Winter and the crowd erupts loudly with shouts of approval and applause.
Old Man Winter is cut down from his rope dangling above the center of the dance hall and taken outside. He is dragged and paraded from the Community Hall down to the Hutte Restaurant where is he tossed unceremoniously into the raging bonfire. The crowd approves with shouts and applause once more. The burning of the effigy is an attempt to shorten winter. It’s a great thought but it can backfire!
Fasnacht is completed as the gruesome sight of the Old Man is dangled into the flames and burns steadily, shooting sparks skyward as they swirl and twirl about wildly. I am certain if you would glance up into the night sky, you may be lucky enough to see the spirit of Old Man Winter smiling mischievously back as if to say “You just wait till next year”.
To visit Helvetia, be sure to have a good local map, a tank full of gas, plenty of warm clothes and some extra food in your vehicle. Old Man Winter may just rear his ugly head once more. It’s better to be prepared than to be trapped on Turkeybone Road in a snowdrift!
Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tour owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net