If you’ve ever had hot cross buns, you know how delicious they are. However, do you know the history of hot cross buns at Easter, and the meaning and symbolism they hold for the holiday?
When you think of Easter, images of hot cross buns, the Easter bunny, decorated eggs, Easter lilies and pastel colors might come to mind.
This is because all of those items are symbols of Easter, and each item holds special meaning for the holiday.
Let’s learn the how hot cross buns came to be, the different hot cross bun traditions through the years and the religious meaning of hot cross buns.
Don’t forget to check out our Easter hot cross buns recipe at the bottom of the page to add this delicious food to your holiday celebrations.
What are hot cross buns?
Hot cross buns are sweet, spiced buns. They often have dried fruit like raisins, sultanas or currants added to the dough.
This Easter pastry is flavored with cinnamon and other spices.
Hot cross buns have a cross on top of them, which gives them their name. There have been different ways throughout history that the cross has been added to the top of the buns.
In the earliest iterations of hot cross buns, the cross was either scored into the bread before baking, or made by placing shortbread pastry on top of the bun before baking.
Most of the crosses today are made by piping a flour cross onto the buns before baking, or by piping icing on top of the buns after they’ve been baked, and cooled.
Traditional hot cross buns at Easter
Hot cross buns are traditionally served on Good Friday, because of their religious symbolism tied to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
While you can find them at other times of the year, they are traditionally only eaten on the Christian feast days around Easter.
Hot cross buns aren’t the only bread traditionally served during the Easter season. Many countries have their own traditional Easter breads.
Check out our post with 10 different Easter bread recipes from around the world, to learn more about Easter breads, and how to make them.
Religious meaning of hot cross buns for Easter
Easter marks the end of Lent, and celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion.
It’s fitting that these spiced buns are symbols of the holiday, because the meaning of hot cross buns at Easter ties directly to the resurrection.
The cross atop the hot cross buns symbolize the cross used in Jesus’s crucifixion. Check out our post on the Easter cross to learn more about this Easter symbol.
The spices used in hot cross buns are symbolic of the spices, referenced in the bible, which were intended to embalm the body of Jesus Christ.
According to Luke 23: 55-56, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee prepared a mixture of spices for him. In Luke 24, when the women returned with the spices, they found the empty tomb.
The raisins embedded in the dough also hold religious symbolism. They represent the body of Christ when he was entombed.
Even the yeast dough of hot cross buns represents Jesus Christ. The dough has to rise before the hot cross buns can be baked, which symbolizes that Jesus has risen.
Suspected Pagan origin of hot cross buns
While the meaning of hot cross buns has religious ties to Christianity, this Easter food also appeared in Pagan ceremonies honoring the Germanic goddess Ēostre (also called Ôstara).
Ēostre, the goddess of spring, dawn and light, was celebrated in the month of April. Though sparsely historically documented, Ēostre is mentioned in Bede’s The Reckoning of Time.
Pagans celebrated Ēostre/Ôstara by baking small cakes with crosses in her honor. These early “hot cross buns” celebrated the shift of the seasons from winter to spring. The cross on the cakes symbolized the four seasons.
Thought not reliably documented, it is also believed that cakes were made to honor the Roman goddess Diana (a goddess of fertility, the hunt, and the moon). Diana is known in Greek mythology as Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo.
Diana’s cakes had the image of deer or ox horns on them, dividing the cakes into four sections. Each section representing one of the four phases of the moon.
The Alban bun
While there are many potential origins of hot cross buns, one possibility is that they were modeled after a 14th century bun called the Alban bun.
A man named Brother Thomas Rocliffe was a monk in St Albans Abbey during the 14th century. In 1361, he created the Alban bun, thought to be a predecessor of hot cross buns.
Brother Thomas Rocliffe handed out these Alban buns to the poor on Good Friday. Though his original recipe is a secret, it does appear similar to the modern recipe for hot cross buns.
A notable difference between the two is the addition of dried fruit added to hot cross buns; Alban buns did not contain dried fruit.
Like hot cross buns, the Alban bun also featured a cross on top of the bun.
However, unlike modern hot cross buns where the cross is piped on top, the cross on Alban buns was created by etching it into the bun before baking.
Folklore and history of hot cross buns
Hot cross buns are not only religious symbols. They are also items which, throughout history, had seemingly magical powers.
The first written account of hot cross buns was in 1773, in the almanac of “Poor Robin”. According to Poor Robin’s Almanac, the Good Friday buns were immune to mold.
“Good Friday comes this month: the old woman runs
With one a penny, two a penny hot cross-buns;
Whose virtue is, if you’ll believe what’s said,
They’ll not grow mouldy like the common bread.”
According to Charles Hindley’s A History of the Cries of London, (originally published in 1881) since these buns were believed to never mold, hot cross buns were kept hanging in kitchens for one year (from one Good Friday to the next) for good luck.
This belief that hot cross buns don’t decay ties back into their religious symbolism. After Jesus’s crucifixion, his body showed no signs of decay before his resurrection.
The beliefs about hot cross buns don’t stop there. During the year, if anyone fell ill, it was believed that their illness or disease would be cured if they grated and ate a piece of the hanging hot cross bun.
Humans were not the only ones thought to benefit from the powers of hot cross buns. It was also believed that if mixed into a warm mash, hot cross buns would cure a calf from scouring.
They were also thought to bring good luck and friendship, as is evident in the old quote about hot cross buns “half for you and half for me, between us two, good luck shall be”.
Hindley summarizes their powers by saying that “[hot cross buns] are not only considered to be preservatives from sickness and disease, but also as safeguards from fire and lightning”.
Good Friday hot cross bun traditions
Many of the hot cross buns Easter stories told throughout history are still revered today. Some have even born hot cross bun traditions from their tales.
Her son asked that she have a hot cross bun waiting for him when he returned. Eagerly awaiting his return of her son, she baked him a hot cross bun.
Sadly, the widow’s son did not return from sea. However, she continued to bake him a hot crossed bun every year, until her death, in hopes that he would one day walk through the door.
Upon her death, it was said that all of the hot crossed buns she baked for him were found hanging in a net in her cottage. This bit of the story ties to the belief that hot cross buns are immune to growing mold.
In 1848, a pub called The Widow’s Son was built in East London. It is in a town called Bromley-by-Bow, where the widow’s cottage once stood.
The pub kept the widow’s hot cross bun tradition going, by hanging a net of buns above the bar. The Widow’s Son is commonly referred to as The Bun House by locals.
Every year on Good Friday, a sailor from the Royal Navy comes to the pub to place a new hot cross bun in the net, continuing her tradition.
Hot cross buns history in England
Because of the religious meaning of hot cross buns and the superstitions surrounding them, during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, their production was regulated.
In 1592, the London Clerk of the Markets issued a decree limiting the sale of hot cross buns.
The decree forbade bakers from making and selling hot cross buns (and other spiced breads) on any occasion other than Good Friday, Christmas, or for burials.
If caught, the baker’s punishment would be to forfeit all of their spiced breads to the poor.
Anyone wanting hot cross buns for occasions other than Good Friday, Christmas or burials, had to bake them at home.
More attempts to limit spiced bread were put forth during the rule of King James I. However, it was difficult to enforce these limitations, and the decree was eventually done away with.
Easter hot cross buns facts
Add to your knowledge of Easter hot cross buns by checking out these facts about hot cross buns below. Some may surprise you!
- Hot cross buns are eaten in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, South Africa and India.
- Historically, Lent was a time of fasting and sacrifice, where items like meat, dairy, eggs were given up. Hot cross buns (containing both eggs and dairy) served on Good Friday mark the end of Lent.
- The 1773 reference to hot cross buns in Poor Richard’s Almanac was the first time they were recorded in writing as “hot cross buns”. Previously they were called “cross buns”.
- There is a hot cross buns nursery rhyme which began as an English street cry.
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National Hot Cross Bun Day
If you enjoyed learning about the history of hot cross buns at Easter, you’ll be excited to know there is even a national day of the year dedicated to this Easter treat.
Falling annually on September 11, National Hot Cross Bun Day gives us another excuse to celebrate this delicious Easter food filled with religious symbolism.
National days of the year are a fun way to celebrate odd and unusual foods, animals and items that you come into contact with.
Be sure to check out my national day’s guide for more fun days to celebrate.
If you’d like to learn about the national days this month, check out our list of national days in April, our printable calendar of April national days, and the list of delicious food days that occur in April.
Looking for more Easter posts?
If you enjoyed learning about the meaning of hot cross buns, and the history behind hot cross buns at Easter, be sure to also check out these other Easter themed posts!
- Easter nest cupcakes (pictured above) – These cupcakes are almost too cute to eat…almost being the key word!
- White House Easter Egg Roll Day – Check out this national day dedicated to Easter egg races on the white house lawn.
- Easter Midnight Kiss Cocktail – This vodka based cocktail is garnished with candy – how cool!
- Bird’s nest cookies – Try this no-bake Easter cookie recipe that looks like a bird’s nest!
- Easter bunny gift bag – Need a last minute Easter gift bags? Head to our tutorial, and don’t forget to add one of our Easter gift tag labels to the bag.
- Peeps centerpiece – Do you love candy? Check out this Peeps themed table decor filled with sweet treats.
- Easter printable – Make sure to download our free Easter printable to add to your decor this year.
- Easter farmhouse decor – If you’re decorating for Easter this year, make sure to view our tips on decorating for Easter with farmhouse decor.
If you love decorating with the pastel colors of Easter, you’ll love our posts on the colors of each holiday. Make sure to check out our guided to the colors of Mardi Gras, and the colors of Valentine’s Day.
Pin this post on the history of hot cross buns for later
Would you like a reminder of this post which talks about the meaning of hot cross buns? Just pin this image to one of your Easter boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.
Ingredients for hot cross buns
If you’ve been inspired by the meaning and history of hot cross buns, it’s time to try making your own.
The ingredients for this hot cross bun recipe are grouped into sections, so it will be easier to assemble during the cooking process.
Most of the hot cross bun ingredients are easy to find at your local grocery store, but I’ve linked to a few on Amazon which might be harder to find with consistency.
Some of the links below are affiliate links. I earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you if you purchase through an affiliate link.
Hot cross bun dough ingredients:
- 3/4 cup (177 ml) milk
- 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (107 g) packed brown sugar
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (grated from whole nutmeg if possible)
- zest of 1 orange (optional)
- 3 1/2 cups (420 g) all purpose flour
Rum soaked raisin ingredients:
- 1 cup (158g) raisins or sultanas
- juice of 1 orange (optional)
- 1/4 cup (59 ml) rum (optional)
Egg wash ingredients:
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon cream
Flour cross ingredients:
- 1/2 cup (60 g) all purpose flour
- 6 tablespoons water
Orange glaze ingredients:
- 1-2 tablespoons orange marmalade
- 2-4 tablespoons hot water
Recipe for hot cross buns
You can even find adventurous varieties like cheddar and caramelized onion hot cross buns!
Our recipe for hot cross buns will be a more traditional hot cross bun recipe, to celebrate this history of this Easter food.
We have jazzed up the recipe by adding an orange glaze, and rum soaked raisins, but both additions are optional if you prefer a strictly historical hot cross bun.
*Stand mixer vs hand mixing: If you are using a stand mixer, use your dough hook attachment. If you are making this recipe without a stand mixer, I recommend mixing it with a silicone spatula, or wooden spoon (not a hand mixer). This dough is sticky, so it has the tendency to get stuck inside of the beaters. Mixing with a spatula takes a little more arm strength, but will be easier in the long run. **Making uniformly sized hot cross buns: If you want to be precise and have uniformly sized dough balls, weigh your entire dough ball, and divide the number by 15. Each of the 15 portions should weigh that amount. ***Accommodating for buns rising: If you do not leave space between the buns on the baking sheet, during the next step, when the buns rise, they will expand and touch each other. If they are touching your buns will have soft sides, like pull apart bread. If they are not touching, they will have the opportunity to become golden brown all the way around. You can choose which way you prefer - both are delicious! ****Substituting a sugar glaze: If you don't want to use the orange glaze, you can substitute a sugar glaze, made by mixing equal parts of sugar and hot water. A note on making the crosses: You may see some recipes where the crosses on top of the buns are made by piping icing onto the hot cross buns after they are finished baking. If you choose to do this method you have to wait until the buns are completely cooled before adding the crosses. We prefer to eat them warm, so for that reason we recommend making the crosses as instructed above. As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, I earn from qualifying purchases. Nutritional information is approximate due to natural variation in ingredients and the cook-at-home nature of our meals.
Hot cross bun dough:
Rum soaked raisins:
Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 260Total Fat: 6gSaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 48mgSodium: 170mgCarbohydrates: 47gFiber: 2gSugar: 11gProtein: 6g
*Stand mixer vs hand mixing: If you are using a stand mixer, use your dough hook attachment. If you are making this recipe without a stand mixer, I recommend mixing it with a silicone spatula, or wooden spoon (not a hand mixer).
This dough is sticky, so it has the tendency to get stuck inside of the beaters. Mixing with a spatula takes a little more arm strength, but will be easier in the long run.
**Making uniformly sized hot cross buns: If you want to be precise and have uniformly sized dough balls, weigh your entire dough ball, and divide the number by 15.
Each of the 15 portions should weigh that amount.
***Accommodating for buns rising: If you do not leave space between the buns on the baking sheet, during the next step, when the buns rise, they will expand and touch each other. If they are touching your buns will have soft sides, like pull apart bread. If they are not touching, they will have the opportunity to become golden brown all the way around. You can choose which way you prefer - both are delicious!
****Substituting a sugar glaze: If you don't want to use the orange glaze, you can substitute a sugar glaze, made by mixing equal parts of sugar and hot water.
A note on making the crosses: You may see some recipes where the crosses on top of the buns are made by piping icing onto the hot cross buns after they are finished baking. If you choose to do this method you have to wait until the buns are completely cooled before adding the crosses.
We prefer to eat them warm, so for that reason we recommend making the crosses as instructed above.
As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Nutritional information is approximate due to natural variation in ingredients and the cook-at-home nature of our meals.
Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.
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