Pączki Day: A Polish tradition becomes an American tradition

What do you know about the Polish-American tradition celebrated on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday? You may have heard it called Fat Tuesday.

Pączki donut

A most popular Polish-American tradition is celebrated on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. You may have heard it called Fat Thursday or Tłusty Czwartek (pronounced Twoosti Chvartek). In Polish-American culture, Pączki Day (punch-key) is a once-a-year event and is only celebrated on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which always falls in the seventh week before the Christian holiday Easter.  It is speculated that in the U.S., the Polish communities have adopted Fat Tuesday as Packi Day to fit in with the general festivities when they immigrated to the U.S. 

People will ask for pączkis, not realizing that pączki is already the plural of pączek (punch-ek). Pączki are very rich donuts, deep fried and then filled with fruit or cream filling and covered with powdered sugar or icing.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Traditionally, Lent was 40 days of fasting, meaning only one meal a day and full fasting on Friday. Any rich foods were not allowed. The Tuesday before Lent, people of Poland used up food so that it would not be spoiled or wasted. Families would use up their eggs, butter and sugar and fruit by treating themselves one last time before Lent began with these rich donuts. This tradition was started in the medieval age during the reign of August III.

In the United States, Paczki Day was always popular in the Polish communities from the beginning of the 20th century. Polish immigrants settled in different parts of the U.S. such as Detroit, Michigan; Baltimore, Maryland; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Saginaw, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; Buffalo, New York; and especially Hamtramck, Michigan, where the Polish bakeries would have pączki for sale on Fat Tuesday morning. In smaller communities, it was the local Polish parish that came together to make and sell pączki.

Recently, Pączki Day has expanded as more people have heard about this Polish tradition and want to become a part of this tasty holiday. Paczki can be found up to a month before Fat Tuesday in almost every food store: deli, grocery and bakery. People just cannot pass up a delicious food holiday and Pączki Day can be considered one of the best. To learn more, I would encourage research into the history of the settling of Polish immigrants in the U.S.

Michigan 4-H has had a long-lasting relationship with Poland 4-H with inbound and outbound summer hosting experiences. Although the physical exchange has not continued, the exchange is ongoing through virtual programming and a “Visual Letters” Art Exchange. Sharing cultures is a top priority of the Michigan 4-H International Exchange Programs. Pączki Day is a cultural event that can be shared by both. How it is currently celebrated in Poland and how the same celebration has evolved in the U.S. would be an interesting and educational conversation, plus a chance to share delicious pączki recipes.

Through these relationships, I have developed a friendship with several individuals from Poland. When talking with one friend about the holiday, she commented, “The most celebrated day for pączki is in fact Fat Thursday. On Tuesday, we eat many other things like faworki and pączki as well. The last day before Ash Wednesday has a tradition similar to the one of Halloween; children dress up and visit homes to get something sweet. It was [this way] when I was a child. Now they prefer Halloween and have the tradition forgotten.”

My Polish friend continued to share more with me about these two tasty treats. “Both pączki and faworki are fried in lots of fat - boiled in fat,” she said. “We used lard for this purpose, now we mostly use oil. There are different stuffings to be put inside our pączki. The most popular is marmalade or rose confiture. They are served with icing with orange peel or sprinkled with powdered sugar. Faworki are really funny; I mean its shape.” 

Faworki. Photo credit: iStock.

My friend remarked that it is very difficult to make paczki and they use leavened to make them. Faworki are easier and very crispy, making them delicious, as well. Faworki are sometimes also enjoyed at Christmas, as they are by another friend of mine from Poland, though they called them Chrusciki (pronounced Hrus-chi-ki). In the U.S., they can be called angel wings or bow ties because of their shape.

If you’ve enjoyed learning this bit of Polish history, you may also enjoy learning about other educational global and cultural opportunities through the Michigan 4-H International Events page. Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas.

For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office. Visit the Michigan 4-H International Exchange Programs for information on hosting exchange students or traveling.

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