HELEN — Sunny skies and bright costumes lit up North Georgia’s Bavarian village Saturday for Fasching, the German celebration of Mardi Gras.
The Faschingsverein Helen, a nonprofit organization, celebrated the event with a parade through the streets of Helen, followed by a short tubing parade down the Chattahoochee River.
The group dressed in extravagant costumes ranging from the traditional Mardi Gras green, purple and gold masks to pirate costumes, entertaining the crowds as they made their way through downtown Helen.
“This is basically a celebration. It’s the Germans’ answer to Mardi Gras,” said Walter Snyder, one of the parade leaders.
“We’re trying to promote bringing Fasching back to Helen, so we started doing the river parade. We started back in 2011 and we had three people, and I think today we’re going to have 65 or 70.”
The walking parade began at the Helendorf Inn and wound through various streets, making six stops along the way for members to trade tokens for a single shot of spirits. They ended at the Riverbend Hotel, where they pushed off from the shore and floated down the river.
Crowds lined the riverbanks and bridges to watch participants face the challenges of the river, navigating rocks and fallen trees and the surging water that could flip an unsuspecting floater. Though temperatures reached 60 degrees, the water remained a cool 38 degrees.
“I want to see people tube down the river,” said Gayla Davenport of Commerce, who had first learned about the event from the Internet, then fliers in the hotel she was staying at for the weekend. “February tubing is crazy. There’s rain, or snow, and the cold.”
Davenport was visiting Helen for the weekend with Jessica Hickman and Holly, 6, who wanted to see Helen because her last name was German, “so they needed to go.”
“There’s a mixture of everything, so it’s kind of unique because you’ve got every little thing, and it’s so colorful, too,” said Hickman. “It’s interesting and different. Where we live at you wouldn’t see something like this, where they dress up and stuff.”
Davenport, who usually visits Helen in the fall, enjoyed her first experience with Fasching.
“Right now it’s not nearly like Oktoberfest, but I could see this growing as more people learn about it,” Davenport said. “Tonight they’re having a party at the Festhalle and the lady said that kids could go, too, so that should be fun.”
That party was to include live music, contests, costumes and games for all ages.
The weekend celebration was the first to feature a princess and prince nominated by Helen residents, choosing Jim and Valarie Dunn of Dallas for 2015. Both have been involved in previous year’s celebrations.
“We represent Fasching for the whole season, so there are several parties and the parade” Jim Dunn said.
“The whole thing has just been a blast. It’s been a lot of fun,” said Valarie Dunn, after getting out of the river with her husband, both confirming the cold temperature of the water. “We get to officially wear tiaras and crowns. It’s fun. You can dress up, be a kid again, but drink.”
“Just from last year to this year we’ve tripled in size in the amount of people going down the river. It’s been great,” said Pam Summers of the Faschingsverein group. She was among of the first group of people to tube down the river.
“The very first year there were three people, two women and one guy. Fussen, Germany, is our friendship city and there they have the farm where they jump in the river. Well we can’t jump in the river here because it’s not deep enough, so we decided to partner up with Cool River Tubing and float down the river.”
Several group members plan a trip to Fussen to celebrate the culture and experiences. The group continues to promote appreciation for German culture in Helen and support local businesses.
“Monday, there’s about nine of them going to Germany to our friendship city to celebrate Fasching with them,” Snyder said. “They are just a bunch of people trying to promote Fasching, and to get people back into Helen. So, we’re getting there.”