I’m not a fan of religious holidays, but it’s Good Friday and that happens to coincide with one of those odd, localized British traditions that are always worth dropping in on.
Every Good Friday, a sailor comes into the Widow’s Son pub in Bromley-by-Bow, in London’s East End, and adds a hot cross bun to a net of aging hot cross buns strung above the bar.
And that’s it.
Okay, that’s not quite it. It’s not one sailor, but a group of sailors from HMS President, which is docked nearby, and they climb on each other’s shoulders to get to the net, with the youngest being the designated bun-putter-inner.
Or possibly smallest. It depends on who you believe.
Then that’s it.
Or it used to be. In recent years, though, a few hours of free drinks and loud music have been added, along with a buffet that includes hot cross buns. This year, of course, all bets are off. Pubs are closed, gatherings are banned, and flour’s hard to come by. Someone will probably scan a bun and email it into the net.
In recent years (and no, I don’t know how recent recent is), the buns are shellacked before they’re put in the net so they’ll last as long as possible.
What’s it all about? Legend has it that a widow and her son lived in the cottage where the pub now stands. The boy went to sea, and every year he came back on Good Friday and she’d made him a hot cross bun.
One year, he didn’t return. She kept the bun and baked a new one for him every year.
Or else, he never did come back, even that first year–he’d drowned at sea. I’ve read two versions of the tale and if I kept going I’m sure I’d find more.
When she died, they found a net of buns hanging from the ceiling. For 80 years, the pub kept up the tradition, adding a bun a year.
In 2015, the pub closed and the collection of buns disappeared. Or else a fire destroyed most of them fifteen years ago. Or possibly both. We’re in the land of legend, where what actually happened doesn’t weigh much. The stories, though? They’re what carry the weight.
When the pub sold, the new owners, under pressure from locals, revived the tradition.
End of story and we still haven’t reached 400 words. Surely I owe you something more, so let’s talk about hot cross buns.
According to one belief, hot cross buns baked on Good Friday will never go stale. Or moldy. That surely has something to do with the legend of the widow’s immortal buns. Another belief holds that if you hang a bun from your kitchen rafters on Good Friday it won’t go bad. The next year, you replace it with a new one.
Back when people took this stuff seriously, they’d break up the year-old bun, mix it with water, and use it as medicine. If the patient recovered from whatever was wrong, they credited the bun. If the patient didn’t–well, medicine was like that in those days.
I haven’t read that anyone bit down on it and said, “Hey, guys, it tastes like it was baked this morning.” On the other hand, I can’t prove that they didn’t.
The bun was also supposed to protect the kitchen from evil spirits, prevent kitchen fires, and ensure that the bread you made there would be glorious.
If you took a hot cross bun to sea, it would prevent shipwrecks.
Sharing a hot cross bun ensured a strong friendship.
Writing about hot cross buns ensures that you’ll visit some very silly websites, along with some serious ones.
Legend dates hot cross buns back to a twelfth (or in one telling, eleventh) century monk. Or to the Saxons, who baked something along those lines even before they became Christians, with the cross symbolizing the four quarters of the moon. Or to the early Greek Christians, or to the ancient Greeks, who lived before there were Christians. But the first recorded mention of them comes from a sixteenth and seventeenth century text: “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns.”
In 1592, Elizabeth I banned the sale of spiced buns on any day but Good Friday. (Or possibly any day but Good Friday and Christmas. Or Good Friday, Christmas, and burials. Take your pick.) I’ve seen two explanations: One, they were too special to be eaten on any other day. Two, they smacked of popery and she wanted to set a limit on them.
These may have been what we know as hot cross buns and may have been some other kind of spiced bun. Either way, people could–and apparently did–bake them at home to get around the law. If they were caught, though, they had to give all the buns they had on hand to the poor.
By way of philosophical balance, Alf Dubs, a Labour member of the House of Lords, is scheduled to send out a secular Good Friday message to prisoners in British jails via the prison radio system. (Britain’s a strange and complicated place and I won’t explain why the Labour Party has members in the Lords–it’d take too long.) It’s aimed at atheist and humanist prisoners on behalf of an organization that offers them pastoral care, Humanists UK, offering hope at a time when the prisons are locked down and prisoners can’t see their families.
Dubs escaped Nazi Germany as a child, coming to Britain on one of the Kindertransports. In recent years, he’s become an advocate for refugees.
I owe someone thanks for pointing me in the direction the Widow’s Son. I took all the information I’d need to thank him or her, put it someplace safe (since I know better than to trust my memory–effectively, I don’t have one), and have never seen it again. Whoever you are (1) forgive me and (2) remind me so I can post a link to your blog.