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Fasnacht draws big crowd

by Gail Marsh

STAFF WRITER

HELVETIA -- As darkness began to fall, people wearing costumes of all shapes and colors filled up the street of this tiny Randolph County village in an attempt to banish Old Man Winter.

More than 150 people from as far away as Texas came to Helvetia on Saturday to participate in Fasnacht, a traditional celebration that has been taking place since the Swiss settled here in 1869.

Fasnacht, which translates as "Feast Night," is always held on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday as a way to bring on the end of winter and to assure a good harvest.

This year's celebration, which kicked off with a Swiss buffet at the Hutte restaurant, drew a larger crowd than the year before, according to Eleanor Mailloux, owner of the establishment.

"I think the mild weather brought out a lot of people. We had more than 100 reservations, and we just couldn't turn anyone away," she said.

At 8:30 p.m., the Lampions, which are Swiss paper accordion lanterns, were lit and the crowd assembled in the street in front of the Star Band Hall. Randolph County Sheriff Paul Brady and several of his deputies were on hand to lead the parade.

"We turn our lights on and lead them out. People get a little crazy but we never have any problems," Brady said.

Michael Roh of Morgantown, dressed as a 7-foot-tall papier-mâché drunken sailor, said he comes every year to Fasnacht.

"Why do I come? The better question is, why do I leave? It's a great place to visit and it's always fun to see everyone taking part," Roh said.

The parade wound through the town and ended at the community building, where there was more food, music, and dancing.

The parade started out quietly, but soon people were chiming in with cow bells, yodeling, whistling and hooting.

Betsy, David and Zack Wall came from Morgantown for the celebration and will camp in a nearby meadow overnight. The three have been coming to Fasnacht for more than a decade.

This year, Betsy dressed as the Queen of Spades, David dressed as a tree and Zack, 13, wore a huge, papier-mâché character, copied from his skateboarder's T-shirt.

"I think we enjoy making the costumes as much as anything," Betsy said.

The evening will continue past midnight when an effigy of Old Man Winter will be burned on a bonfire next to the community building.

"It's a unique festival, and everyone has such a good time," Mailloux said.

We'll have extended coverage of Fasnacht in next Sunday's paper.

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