Pagans and pagan symbolism are just the thin end of the wedge when it comes to hot cross bun buffoonery. There are all kinds of other made-up stories that have found currency over the years. Let’s see…there’s the one about the medieval monks who put crosses on their bread to ward off evil spirits. There’s the one about English housewives, so dissatisfied (i.e. “hot” and “cross”) with the output of their local bakery, they were forced to make their own rolls at home. Then there’s the one about Father Thomas Rockliffe, a medieval monk, who gave out buns that people believed had magical, curative powers. There’s the English Widow who baked a bun every day for her son who went to sea, the peasants who strung buns up on their ceilings to bring them good luck, and the priests who fashioned their buns (steady on there, gutter thinkers) after the round stone that covered Christ’s tomb.
There are a host of historical myths too. My favorite concerns Queen Elizabeth the First, who, worried about the pervasiveness of pagan breads in sixteenth-century England (wha?), tried to ban the hot cross bun. When the ban ultimately failed she decreed they could only be eaten on holy days (i.e. Easter). Makes loads of sense, no? Again, like so much of what passes for food history, there’s nothing whatsoever in the historical record to back the story up.
All that we know for certain about hot cross buns is that they first appeared on the culinary scene around 1700. The earliest reference to the hot cross bun appears in an obscure English publication called Poor Robin’s Almanack, dated 1733. It reads:
Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns
Thus we can assume that the hot cross bun must have been around for at least a little while when that sentence was written. Was the hot cross bun that Poor Robin talks about the same sort of bun we know today? It’s doubtful, since crystalline sugar was actually worth more by weight than gold at the time. So, probably no icing or candied fruit. But any Georgian baker could have cut a cross in the top of a roll, so there may be some continuity there.
All that of course begs the question as to how and why the hot cross bun came into being in the first place. As far as I’m concerned, it comes down to marketing. In our contemporary, Christmas-obsessed times, we tend to forget that it wasn’t so long ago (say 150 years, before Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol) that Easter was the focal point of the Christian calendar. Thus I think it’s fair to speculate that there was probably at least a little bit of merch around. Taiwan barely had its first plastic injection molders online by that time, but Georgian bakers were perfectly capable of producing all sorts of edible commemorative items. The hot cross bun, I think it’s reasonable to assume, was one of them.