In Helvetia, West Virginia, Christmastime, like all the town’s events, is a community affair. On the Saturday closest to the 5th of December, the town celebrates their unique heritage with tales of Saint Nicholas, sweet treats, square dancing, a potluck dinner, and best of all… Swiss grittibanz, a special kind of holiday bread.
Hear this story on Inside Appalachia.
In the mountains of Randolph County, West Virginia, is the small Swiss-German town of Helvetia. This tiny, remote town is rich with Swiss-German tradition, including the Feast of Saint Nicholas held at the Helvetia Community Hall.
“We’re gathered here on the Feast of Saint Nicholas to think about generosity, because [Saint Nicholas] was a very generous person,” said local resident Eleanor Betler to a crowded dining room in the Community Hall, “And we carry that through by teaching, and we teach to make the grittibanz.”
Grittibanz is loosely translated to “doughboy,” and families often make them in Switzerland and Germany for the Feast of Saint Nicholas, which is held on the eve before Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th.
It may be based off an old tradition, but the Feast of Saint Nicholas has only been held in Helvetia for the past 20 years.
It's one of their smallest events during the year and averages about 25 to 30 attendees, but it’s no less a favorite for locals.
Hours before the feast, locals prep the Community Hall for the festivities and the grittibanz. Anna Chandler stands over a large, silver mixing bowl and reads through the list of ingredients needed.
Anna may not be a local, but her father’s side of the family is from Helvetia. She lives in Morgantown and makes a point to attend local events like this one. Over the past three years, she’s been making the dough for the grittibanz with Eleanor’s guidance.
“This is the; it’s called Hebel; that’s the yeast dough,” Anna said. “So, this is like the starter, so you get it going first, so the yeast is active and going at it, and then you add it to everything else.”
After mixing in all the ingredients, Anna kneads the dough until it becomes soft, but still firm enough to mold and shape into bread people.
“First time I made this, or worked with anybody to make it, I thought it was gonna be a really sweet dough, like cinnamon roll dough; it’s not, it’s just a rich, cause it’s got the eggs and butter in it, yeast dough; it’s very straightforward,” she explained. “And when the kids get done decorating, we decorate with raisins and citron, and stuff like that, so it’s not sweet by any means, it’s just bread.”
Upstairs in the main room of the Community Hall, a small group of kids and their parents make Christmas crafts and play games together while they wait on the dough. Decorating the grittibanz with children is a big part of the tradition.
Back in the kitchen, Eleanor and Anna lay out baking sheets for each person, butter knives, and round, sticky dough balls for each child and parent to work with.
At the center of the table is a tray of flour, a couple bowls of egg wash, and dried fruit to use for decorating.
“Okay, so kind of take it from the sides and make him a neck, okay,” said Eleanor to the group of kids and their families. “And then make some shoulders and some arms.”
After everyone’s grittibanz is decorated, they’re left to rise for about 15 minutes, and then they’re ready to be baked.
Carrying On Tradition
Helvetia’s population has dropped dramatically over the decades as people have moved away for job opportunities and other reasons. Yet, Eleanor says she doesn’t think the town, or its traditions will ever disappear.
The annual events are unique and a big draw for visitors, she said, but also, many people who have family connections to Helvetia are proud of where they come from…and the events bring people home.
“Everybody does everything together, and I think that’s what keeps almost all of our traditions alive is that we do things as families and as community,” Eleanor said. “Church community; family community; community-community, and community and family mean everything to us here. Everything.”
Making grittibanz from scratch is just one aspect of Helvetia’s Feast of Saint Nicholas event. Residents also gather that day for a visit from Santa Claus, to hear the story of Saint Nick, a potluck dinner...and a community square dance.