Hot, Cross

…is pretty much what I get every year when I see a food columnist parroting more of the same old hot cross bun claptrap. There are probably as many erroneous, exaggerated, or just plain made-up stories about the hot cross bun as there are about the pretzel. The most oft-cited myth goes like this: the hot cross bun is descended from pre-Christian peoples, for whom carving a cross on a round bread was a deeply mystical act connected to food and/or blood sacrifice. The symbolism, having to do with the progression of the sun, the phases of the moon, the four seasons, the four cardinal directions and the four members of ABBA, was later co-opted by Christians as they incorporated key pagan celebrations like the spring solstice into the Christian calendar. Some trace the hot cross bun to pagan European peoples, some to the Romans, the Greeks, or the Egyptians. It all adds up to a really fun — if truly wackadoo — body of work on the subject. This crazy essay has everything but an alien landing.

The most credible writing on the origin of the hot cross bun comes from the Oxford Companion to Food, which speculates that breads marked with a cross may have been eaten by the ancient Saxons (Germanic peoples who lived around the area of modern-day Holland) in honor of their goddess of light, Eostre. What makes this idea compelling is that the spring feast of Eostre is the very celebration that evolved into our modern holiday of Easter. It is also true that the Saxons, among other tribes, invaded the English isle around the 5th century AD — and England is where the hot cross bun originated. The fly in the ointment is that there is no hard evidence that the Saxons ever ate breads marked with a cross, at the celebration of Eostre or at any other time of year.

So what we’re left with, in the end, is a lot of speculation and a lot of people straining awfully hard to try to make a pagan connection to the hot cross bun. Why, I couldn’t possibly tell you.

6 thoughts on “Hot, Cross”

  1. The tradition in my family is much simpler, and has no pagan connection at all – simply, hot cross buns are eaten on Good Friday, and are marked with a cross in remembrance of the Crucifixion. Although I think this year I’ll make them a couple days early, so I can share them around at the Wednesday meeting.

  2. Augh, these dumb pagan hot cross bun stories drive me bonkers. It doesn’t matter whether other cultures marked bread with crosses or not – if they did it doesn’t imply descent, only similarity.

    In my experience, once I was both post-RCIA and had a kitchen of my own to bake in, marking my loaves with a cross came so naturally that I barely registered I was doing it. Buns marked with a cross as a personal pious practice catching on with the wider culture makes far fewer (and less wild) assumptions.

    I’ve tried and tried hot cross buns though, and I just don’t like them. It’s the raisins. Also, I find eating sweet, spiced buns on Good Friday aesthetically off. This year I’m going to try the Italian sweet rosemary buns for Holy Thursday instead.

    (Incidentally, all Easter gets from Eostre is the name ‘Easter’. The holiday’s name in any Latin-descent language is derived from Paschua – Passover.)

    1. Well said, Geek Lady!

      And you’re absolutely right about the English name for Easter. I should have mentioned that. Your point is underscored by the Spanish word “Pascua” or the French “Pâques”. It ain’t no pagan thang! 😉

      Cheers and thanks,

      – Joe

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