In terms of Lenten baking, the hot cross bun is perhaps the most iconic. While it’s precise origins are unclear, these sweet spiced buns topped with a white cross have been an Easter staple for centuries. Tradition tells us that it was an English monk in the 14th century who first crafted these during Holy Week and distributed them to the poor in his community. By the time of Queen Elizabeth I they had become so popular that she decreed that they could only be sold on Christmas, Easter, and for funerals. Why the limitations you ask? Well their popularity had come with lots of superstitions including beliefs that they could heal illness and those baked on Good Friday would never mold. Perhaps as a nod to their monastic roots, those who broke this law had tao give their contraband to the poor.
There are largely two different camps of HCB. The first leans in the sweet direction where the buns are sweet and simple with a sugar icing cross. The other is more savory where the cross is baked in and the sugar toned down. Surprisingly for those who know me, I prefer the latter. When I am contemplating the crucifixion of Jesus, I don’t really want something especially sweet. It just feels off. Symbolism is an integral part these buns. The cross is the most obvious connection to Good Friday, but the warm spices are meant to call out mind to the embalming of Jesus before burial.
My favorite recipe for these buns, however is non traditional. Influenced by the Caribbean colonial history, they are packed with citrus and spices with a slightly bitter sweet glaze. They also include the mixed peel that is often associated with Christmas fruit cakes. Taken together, I love how these buns bring some Christmas joy into the solemnity of Lent. While the Church often separates these two major holidays of the church year, theologically and historically they are very interconnected. Both Matthew and Luke anticipate Jesus’ death in their Nativity stories and many traditional hymns follow suit.
The reason for this is that Jesus’ death and resurrection only makes sense if he is the incarnate Son of God. That mysterious union of humanity and divinity is what affects God’s saving work on us individually and corporately. So while we may not sing Hark the Herald Angels sing on Easter morning, in your kitchen as the warm spices fill the air, you can know that Christmas is, at least theologically, not far away.