HELEN — When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of New Orleans, brightly colored costumes and elaborate floats crowded with people flinging beads and candy into the crowd.
The annual Fasching River Parade and Party held in Helen each year is its own early Mardi Gras holiday, a time to put on your most outrageous costume, pour a glass of schnapps and tube down the Chattahoochee River.
At Saturday’s festival, participants and attendees left green, yellow and purple feathers, beads and other accessories in their wake. Helen itself was decked out in the colors, with most shops showing some kind of festivity with banners or cutouts of jesters.
The southern German and Bavarian tradition of Fasching has been regularly celebrated in Helen since 1979.
David Jones, the owner and founder of the Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen in Helen, has been to the real thing several times through the years.
“It manifests itself in many ways,” he said.
Jones said the parade itself can be filled with huge floats and music, but there’s another part to it that Helen doesn’t quite recreate: Skits and parodies based on politics or other cultural phenomena.
“Sometimes it can get pretty blunt and outlandish. But that’s how it is,” he said.
While some locals like Hue Rainey join the party every year, Marietta resident Jennifer Henderson came by accident.
“I had no idea there was even a festival going on,” she said.
Henderson counted herself lucky to catch Helen on such a celebratory and exciting day, since she hadn’t visited for 15 or so years.
“There were so many crazy costumes. People were just walking, somewhat drunkenly, down the road,” she said, watching from her vantage point at the Troll Tavern in Helen.
Unlike Henderson, Rainey can say that he has seen nearly every celebration come and go.
“We go through waves of public interest in it, but we always have a good time,” Rainey said. “You can’t have any more fun than this.”
Saturday, the crowd clad in multicolored outfits marched through town, drinking shots of schnapps and raising a cacophony with horns, cymbals, flutes and accordions.
Catherine Cleiman of the Helendorf Hotel in Helen said Fasching is a great time for adults to take the day off and just have a good time.
“A lot of times grown-ups forget to have fun. And this is a great time for people to just be silly,” she said.
Such silliness was definitely in the air, and by the third “schnapp stop,” the crowd was dancing in the streets and sidewalks.
The parade ended with the annual downstream float to the Helen Festhalle for a party and more schnapps.
Dottie Johnson was one of the brave participants who chose to enter the frigid waters, and at age 77 was the oldest participant to do so.
“I have been doing this for years, and I’m gonna keep on doing it until ‘you know who’ calls me home,” the Sautee native said Saturday before entering the river.
“This is too much fun.”