Every year, I bring hot cross buns to an Easter brunch gathering of family and friends. Sharing food has always been sacred to me, all the more so when it’s around a spiritual event. I don’t know why I started bringing hot cross buns. We didn’t do it when I was growing up; maybe it’s my British roots, but it just seems the thing to do. (Good Friday is the traditional day, but Sunday is when we gather.) This year, for the first time ever, I am making my own, inspired in part by a recent spirituality of bread baking workshop at my church. Based on the test batch, I think it will work out fine.
The hot cross bun is not complicated to make. At its simplest, it’s spiced bread. Flavor and ingredient-wise, its noteworthy for a few reasons. First, traditionally it’s made with currants, an ingredient unknown in America except in its fellow British baked good, the scone. Second, it sometimes includes bits of candied fruit — the same atrocity that afflicts fruitcake and makes it wildly unpopular. (I prefer mine without, if you hadn’t guessed.) Third, it’s only lightly sweetened, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your tastes.
And of course, most obviously, there’s a big honkin’ cross on the top of it, usually made of white icing.
A pagan past
Behind the description, the hot cross bun carries a surprising amount of intrigue. Even to start to tell its history lands you in controversy. We know one thing: it began in England. When and why, though, is its first mystery. While some disagree, the hot cross bun probably was a tribute to the Saxon goddess Eostre, after whom this Christian holiday got its English name. Eostre was the goddess of light, and her name was given to the month of April, which marked the return of the dominance of light, as well as of birth and new growth. Eostre ties back to the German goddess of the dawn, Hausos, who is also linked to rabbits and eggs. While the specifics of Eostre are based on an account from St. Bede which scholars dispute, the link between the German goddess Hausos, the Saxon Eostre, and the later English name and customs of Easter seems obvious.
(While the English language uses the name Easter and modern German retains Ostern, all the Romance languages and many others use a name based on the Latin Pascha, or the original Hebrew Pesach. In other word, the Christian name for Easter in most languages is Passover. Chew on that one for a minute. A few others use a name based on the Greek Anastasia, which means resurrection. Slavic and Sami languages use other words, though Russian uses Paskha.)
The cross on the bun began as an ancient Gaelic symbol depicting either the four quarters of the moon or the intersection of earth (the horizontal line) and Heaven (the vertical line), the human and divine, the physical and the spiritual. These meanings for the cross don’t contradict its other meaning, they enrich it, and you find them in Christianity, especially Celtic Christianity, sometimes too.
The bun that couldn’t be squashed
Despite its pagan roots, the hot cross bun became so entrenched as a symbol of English Catholicness that when the Protestants took power they actually banned the bun. As with most government attempts to forbid something people want, however, it didn’t last long. A compromise was struck by Queen Elizabeth I, allowing them to be sold, but only during Christmas and Easter.
The fact that the buns are not very sweet — just enough to balance the favors but not enough to taste sugary — is seen as appropriate for Lent. The use of currents rather than raisins, though an accident of location rather than something intentional, furthers this, since currents are less sweet and less juicy. It’s possible that hot cross buns were sometimes made with the same flour used for communion wafers, though this might have been propaganda from the anti-Catholics. I was excited to learn that in Australia they sometimes substitute chocolate chips for the currants, so I made some that way too. (I don’t abstain from chocolate during Lent.) I must say, it felt wrong. Even though the overall effect, despite the milk chocolate chips, was still not sweet, chocolate just seems too… decadent.
There’s a superstuition that you can cement a friendship for the coming year by sharing a hot cross bun, saying, "Half for you and half for me, between us two shall good will be." If you ask me, I’d say that’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. But by all means, share hot cross buns with your friends this Holy Week, and consider those friendships holy and protected for the year ahead! If you’re inspired to try home-cooked buns, I’ve included the recipe I used. Have a blessed Easter.