When do you eat hot cross buns at Easter? Tradition explained, why they are crossed and how to serve them

Hot cross buns are an Easter staple but there are several theories about where they come from and whether Good Friday is the day you’re meant to eat them

Easter has many traditions and a lot of them are related to food.

The countdown to the religious festival is kicked off by pancake day, which is immediately followed by Lent.

And on the bank holiday itself, it’s traditional to eat fish on Good Friday and chocolate easter eggs on Easter Sunday - although this is a more recent addition to the Christian celebration.

But this time of year is also when hot cross buns appear on UK supermarket shelves.

Hot cross buns are best served slathered in butter (image: Adobe)

So why do we eat them at this time of year?

Here’s what you need to know.

Where do hot cross buns originate from?

As with most UK traditions, the reason why hot cross buns came to be associated with Easter has been lost to history.

But there are three main theories for their origins in the UK.

One theory is that a monk from the 14th century - Thomas Rocliffe - distributed them among the poor close to his monastery at St Albans, Hertfordshire on Good Friday.

Hot cross buns may have originated in St Albans, Hertfordshire (image: Adobe)

Rocliffe’s buns were slightly different to modern day hot cross buns in that they contained less fruit, had their cross cut rather than piped into the top of the bun and were known as Alban buns.

Another major theory is that the buns evolved out of breads baked to commemorate the life of Jesus Christ, after crossed loaves were found preserved in Herculaneum, close to Pompeii.

Although historians think the crosses on the loaves may have been made to make them easier to break apart.

The final theory is that they were developed by the Anglo Saxons to celebrate the Pagan festival of Eostre - an event celebrating the goddess of dawn - that was merged with the Christian festival celebrating Jesus Christ’s life to become Easter.

In this instance, historians think the cross on the top of the buns symbolised the four quarters of the moon.

When should you eat hot cross buns at Easter?

Whatever their origin, hot cross buns have been consumed in their current form for hundreds of years and were recorded by Samuel Pepys in the 17th century and Dr Johnson in the 18th century.

You can even see buns that were baked in the 1800s if you travel to Essex or London.

It was revealed in 2013 that a couple living near Colchester had a bun that was made on Good Friday in 1807.

Meanwhile, the Widow’s Son pub in Bromley-by-Bow, east London has buns that are believed to date back to the mid-1800s hanging above its bar.

The tradition of hanging up hot cross buns at the Widow’s Son pub in London has been going for nearly 200 years (image: Getty Images)

The story goes that a widow didn’t believe her sailor son had died during the Napoleonic Wars, and so she kept leaving buns out at Easter so that he could eat them on his return to her cottage.

Every year on Good Friday, a sailor from the Royal Navy goes to the pub - which is on the site of the widow’s former home - to add a new bun to the hammock.

Both sets of 19th century buns give credence to the saying that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday never decay.

This saying could be why hot cross buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday - although you can now buy them in supermarkets throughout the year.

It’s not known what specific time they should be eaten on Good Friday, but some people prefer them at breakfast and others like to eat them as an afternoon snack.

How can you serve hot cross buns?

There’s no official way to serve up your hot cross buns.

It’s likely they were eaten plain in the olden days.

But in modern times, they are usually sliced into two flat halves, toasted and then slathered with butter to create a decadent rich note that balances their sweetness.

It’s unlikely you’ll want to top them with anything else, but hot cross buns do pair perfectly with a nice cup of breakfast tea or Earl Grey.