#290: On Paczki and Tradition

March 5th, 2014

My cousin in NOLA is posting pictures of her family at Mardi Gras.

That’s real Mardi Gras for real New Orleanians, not the drunken beads and boobs fest of many a college road trip movie. She, the husband and the two little kidlings all in costume (they went as the four elements) wandering the streets, watching floats and generally being genuine, full-time natives of their community.

Meanwhile, I missed Paczki Day.

Paczki Day is Chicago’s answer to Mardi Gras. Like all things truly Chicagoan, it’s a lot more sedentary, a lot more Polish and involves a lot more lard than most places’ traditions. While New Orleans wanders massive street festivals to watch the ornate fruits of months of krewes’ labors, Chicagoans wait in long lines at local bakeries for these fat-ass Polish doughnuts called paczki (poonch-key).

There are three Paczki Days of note.

The first one is the traditional Polish Fat Thursday (TÅ‚usty Czwartek, because everyone in Poland is trying to use up the high-scoring Scrabble tiles). That’s on the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday.

Paczki Day #2 is on Fat Tuesday, sort of an American merge with Mardi Gras.

And the third Paczki Day is the one where you sort of remember one is called Fat Thursday so you think it’s the day after Ash Wednesday, which doesn’t make a damn bit of sense if you thought about it but now it’s Tuesday night and you’ve missed all the Paczki Days even though you work right by Bennison’s in Evanston and you asked Margaret last week if there was any money in the petty cash fund to buy the office paczki just to be told it would be a hard sell to expense “weird Chicago holidays.”

That Packzi Day’s a bit more obscure, mostly celebrated by doughnut-deprived bloggers.

I’m alternately drawn to and horrified by traditions. Like all non-religious people, I chafe at the notion of consensus determining when I do anything. If I want to get drunk midweek, Ash Wednesday is just as good as Fat Tuesday. If I want to be quiet and chaste and morally righteous, I can do that on Saturday night just as well as on Sunday morning.

But traditions do draw me in. I like the chance to be part of something bigger and to see how the festivals and dates we use to mark our calendar reflect the people and places that surround us.

I like explaining to my non-Illinoisian friends who Casimir Pulaski was and brag that, yep, we got the day off school for that.

I like hitting Humboldt Park on Puerto Rican Day. South Side Irish’s always a bit of a haul, but I’ve never not had a good time there. Christkindlmarket’s good fun and who can say no to Memorial Day grilling?

That’s the divide. I’m torn between the teenage “You can’t tell me what to do!” and the equally teenage “Where’s the party?”

I’m sad to see some traditions peter out or become so corporate all joy is bled from them. When did stores start selling Halloween cards?

And I’m equally sad I won’t be around to see future traditions develop, see what the big street fests are in 3014. Paczki Day and Mardi Gras won’t be around forever, any more than we still get down to Lupercalia.

But between those two sadnesses, we have this moment. We have our krewes and paczki. We dress our children as the elements at 7th and St. Charles in NOLA or we line ‘em up at 115th and Western in Chi and stick an Irish flag in their hands. We have our Christmases and New Years’, our Loi Krathongs and Bud Billikens. We have Juneteenths and Ramadans. We have days Labor, Arbor and Groundhog.

Around this planet, we pick random events to be the minute markings on the clock that ticks down our lives. We get 80 or 90 Christmases if we’re lucky. That’s 240 to 270 days of Timkat if we’re lucky and Ethiopian.

We pick days to make beautiful or silly or respectful and no matter the stated reason for each, they’re really all because we’re bored and mortal. It’s the way we mark our passage through time. It doesn’t matter if a fest’s the most beautiful collection of light and love you’ve ever seen.

Or just a chance to buy a jelly doughnut.

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Stories from a few Chicago traditions:

Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican Fest


The green river on St. Patrick’s Day (illustrated by Dmitry Samarov)

Rosehill Cemetery’s Memorial Day tribute

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