Why do we eat hot cross buns on Good Friday?

In 2019 the U.K. shopper splashed out an extra £31.8 million on them, taking total sales to £153.1 million by the end of January 2020. These buns are no longer the common bun that I remember from childhood, but they are filled with all sorts of interesting things. The trend of making the hot cross bun into something else seems to be prevalent, but why has this little bun become synonymous with Good Friday and Easter Sunday?

There are many myth’s and legends around cross shaped bread, for it is the cross, I think, that makes this bun unique. The bun seems to become popular in 1733, around the same time that the familiar nursery rhyme first appeared, but in fact it is likely that the bun was around much earlier. Both the Ancient Greeks, and Egyptians, however, baked bread at a similar time of year to mark the beginning of spring. The Egyptian’s even marked their buns with the image of an ox horn to their goddess of the moon. 

Yet, this bun seems to have been strongly tied to the Christian faith. In part this is because of the line in the 1733 rhyme:

“Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.”

But, this is not the only rumour, or link. Some link the bun back to a monk of the 12th century who put an incensed cross into a bun. Yet another theory ties the bun to a different 14th century monk  in St. Albans. Or, a more popular protestant theory ties the bun to the Elizabethan era. In her history of English Bread, Elizabeth David, argues that this popular bun was part of a royal decree. It is believed that some time after the reformation Elizabeth I restricted London bakers from making hot cross buns “except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas.” This, I think, furthered link the tradition of eating hot cross buns at this time of the year. It became such a strong part of our tradition that Boswell wrote in 1773: “Being Good Friday I breakfasted with him and cross-buns.”

Which ever theory you prefer the truth is that the cross is a common sign in  the Ancient World and it can represent a wide range of things. For us though, at this moment, it reminds us of the cross of Christ. As we have travelled through lent I have reflected much on the feeling of similarity. Normally lent marks a distinct change in the patterns of our lives and the pattern of the church. Yet, much like the commonality of the hot cross bun all year, this year has felt like an extended period of lent. We have all suffered for such a long time; not being able to see family, consigned to our homes, and distant from the church services which connect us to God, our faith has been rocked and we have felt caught between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. 

Yet, there is also much we have gained. When I think about God I am drawn to the idea of mystery. The mystery of the resurrection is one such example. We put our faith in a grander narrative. We trust that God has a greater plan and that we are called to be a part of that plan. This year, more than any other, we need to put our trust in the resurrection. We need to set our sight not on the cross but on the empty tomb. We need to hold fast to the promises of the resurrection knowing that God offers a greater plan. 

One final theory that I came across when researching hot cross buns seemed so far fetched that I almost liked it. A few years ago one C of E spokesperson, responding to a question about the hot cross bun suggested that that in addition to the cross and the communion-ish bread, the bun’s spices “represent the spices Jesus was wrapped in in the tomb”. 

Although almost farcical this is a helpful way to shift our thinking. As we prepare for Good Friday and Easter. I want us to shift our attention from the cross to the empty tomb. As we move further into Spring I want us to focus our attention on the hope of the resurrection. In Roman’s 8 St. Paul writes:

“We know that the whole world has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patient.”

Let us patiently hold onto our hope. Let us shift our gaze from the suffering of the world to the hope of the resurrection. Let us not be like the world, indulging all year round, but let us patiently stand fast trusting in the hope before us. 

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