The tradition of baking bread marked with a cross is linked to paganism as well as Christianity. The pagan Saxons would bake cross buns at the beginning of spring in honour of the goddess Eostre – most likely being the origin of the name Easter. The cross represented the rebirth of the world after winter and the four quarters of the moon, as well as the four seasons and the wheel of life.
The Christians saw the Crucifixion in the cross bun and, as with many other pre-Christian traditions, replaced their pagan meaning with a Christian one – the resurrection of Christ at Easter.
According to Elizabeth David, it wasn’t until Tudor times that it was permanently linked to Christian celebrations. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the London Clerk of Markets issued a decree forbidding the sale of spiced buns except at burials, at Christmas or on Good Friday.
The first recorded reference to ‘hot’ cross buns was in ‘Poor Robin’s Almanac’ in the early 1700s:
‘Good Friday come this month, the old woman runs. With one or two a penny hot cross buns.’
One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,
One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!’
|The Widows Son. Copyright Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive – posted with permission|
A century later the belief behind the hot cross bun starts to get a superstitious rather than a religious meaning.
In London’s East End you can find a pub called The Widows Son, named after a widow who lived in a cottage at the site in the 1820s. The widow baked hot cross buns for her sailor son who was supposed to come home from the sea on Good Friday. He must have died at sea as he never returned home, but the widow refused to give up hope for his return and continued to bake a hot cross bun for him every year, hanging it in her kitchen with the buns from previous years.
When the widow died, the buns were found hanging from a beam in the cottage and the story has been kept alive by the pub landlords ever since a pub was built on the site in 1848.
To this day, every Good Friday, the ceremony of the Widow’s Bun is celebrated and members of the Royal Navy come to The Widows Son pub to place a new hot cross bun into a net hung above the bar. Legend has it that the buns baked on Good Friday will not spoil.
For whatever reason or belief you choose to bake a batch of hot cross buns on this Good Friday, it will most likely be to enjoy them with your loved ones. May it be for Eostre, Easter, the beginning of a much awaited spring or as a superstitious amulet for when you set sail, bake them with love!
If you want to bake ahead, you can easily bake these buns in advance and freeze them. Slowly defrost in a teatowel and then place in a hot oven for 5-10 minutes with a small ramekin of water to give some moisture to the warm air in the oven.
And finally … you can also find my story about Hot Cross Buns in the latest edition of Pretty Nostalgic Magazine!
If you don’t know the magazine, it’s fairly new and all about British Nostalgia, love for all things Vintage and quirky.
More on Hot Cross Buns on friday!