This is a confectioner's stall at the market near my place. Normally the shelves are filled with different kinds of cakes- chocolate eclairs, honey gingerbread, puff pastries, jam buns...
But today, it is all pączki. Because today, my friends, is Fat Thursday, and custom declares that on Fat Thursday a person should eat as many pączki as they can. And then they should eat some more.
Now, there is a common misconception in America, I have noticed, about this traditional Polish dessert called 'pączki'.
First of all, we do not eat them on Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is the Tuesday followed immediately by Ash Wednesday, effectively the last day of the Carnival before Lent, but it is not a feast celebrated in Poland.
We do not celebrate 'Pączki Day', either. That is a Polish-American tradition.
At home in the old country, what we actually celebrate is Fat Thursday (Tłusty Czwartek). It falls on the last Thursday before Lent- almost a week before Ash Wednesday. In other words, today.
Second of all, they are not doughnuts. Doughnuts have holes in them and they are a completely different dough besides. And what you might think are doughnut holes are mini pączki, or pączusie.
Now, about the name itself. I have heard the word explained as 'packages'. Not so- the word actually means 'buds'. See the little tail underneath the 'a'? That makes an 'aw' sound, and the word is pronounced 'pawnchkee'. The confusion comes from replacing the letter with a regular 'a': 'paczki' are, indeed, packages, preferably wrapped up in brown paper and tied up with string. 'Pączki', however, are buds, such as you would see on a tree in springtime, and though the cakes named after them do often come wrapped in paper, its colour is waxed off-white, and the string is ribbon rather than jute.
Note also that the word is plural, the singular form being 'pączek' (pronounced 'pawncheck'). One pączek, two pączki. Of course it is only natural that the English language would add an extra s and adapt the word as pączkis. :) (the aforementioned 'pączusie' is a diminutive, and indicates the 'pączek' has been shrunk to cuteness.)
If all this etymology has made you hungry, you should feel justified in running out to the nearest confectionery shop and bringing home as many sweet pastries as you can carry. It is, after all, Tłusty Czwartek.
(photos from Fat Thursday 2010, 2009 and 2008)