Hot Cross Buns
April 6, 2012 Leave a comment
By Rob Packer
Good Friday always reminds me of a morning almost ten years ago sitting in a friends’ kitchen in Berlin and discussing our plans for the Easter weekend. I was going to Munich, while they were staying in Berlin with an urge to go dancing. “Of course, we can’t go out tonight.” “Why?” I asked and was told that places in Germany are sometimes closed on Good Friday and dance floors are, in any case, normally roped off because “it’s the saddest day of the year”.
But in Britain too—a notoriously irreligious country—the palimpsest effect that religion has on culture is as strong. Yet it always seems slightly paradoxical that, Christmas apart, some of the festivals and seasonal foods that I consider most typically English are all Lenten. The season begins with pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Then halfway through comes Mothering Sunday (not to be confused with Mother’s Day outside the British Isles), which is supposed to be when people traditionally visited their “mother church” (and mother) and brings simnel cake, a fruit cake with a marzipan covering and little marzipan balls representing the apostles. At the end of Lent is Easter, simnel cake reappears and is joined by eggs and rabbits, probably holdovers from ancient Germanic traditions.
And throughout Lent and especially on Good Friday, we have a family tradition of eating hot cross buns on a Saturday morning. These are sweet buns with a glaze, currant and raisin dough and—most importantly—a cross on top. Growing up, I’d always been told that the official version that they symbolize the Crucifixion, but after taking a look at the Wikipedia article, the real story looks a fair bit more complex. This article from the 1912 New York Times, for example, threads a fuzzy genealogy back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, as well as to the putative Saxon goddess, Eostre, from whose name we get the English Easter and German Ostern. Another theory sees the cross as little more than a dividing line and links Eostre with the phases of the moon.
But while that might be true, it does sound a little farfetched and probably does overanalyse the delicious.