I like hot cross buns at any time of year, because I like sweet yeasted breads. I also believe in eating things in season, even if the season is an odd stew of cultural and religious traditions rather than, say, the planting calendar. And Good Friday, the traditional day to eat hot cross buns, mixes them all, as research I did about 10 years ago revealed.
I started with the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Lent, which of course confirms that eggs and butter, central ingredients of hot cross buns, are traditionally given up during Lent—hence pancakes on Mardi Gras, called Fat Tuesday because of the imperative to use up butter and eggs before the fast. And the profusion of eggs at Easter, both dyed and in breads, is a way to use quickly the eggs chickens keep laying even during Lent.
So why do hot cross buns start appearing in bakeries on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent? The answer is, they shouldn't. It's a way for bakers to stretch out the season. Less odd, but still odd, is that they should be associated with Good Friday, the holiest and most somber day of the Christian year, itself a fast day with one full meal, meatless, and two much smaller ones.
Some answers appeared in a 1994 Washington Post article by the late Geoffrey W. Fielding, and English expat who settled in Baltimore (his obituary here), which gives a longer version of the history our own Jennifer Ward Barber engagingly recounts in her post on hot cross buns. Like most writers on English breads (and Jen!), Fielding drew on Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery, and also a 1989 history I haven't seen by Lizzie Boyd, British Cookery.
Jen's good-looking, HFCS-shunning recipe can only, like looking through the Catholic Encyclopedia, set me dreaming of next week and the end of Passover and my own end of Lent, though this one, of course, eight and not 40 days. Like butter and eggs, yeasted bread is worth waiting for—and combining them all with icing on top makes about as festive a food as I can imagine.
From Geoffrey W. Fielding's article in the Post:
Bread quartered by a cross to denote the four seasons was common in ancient Greece and Rome, and the custom was still around in the Middle Ages, but then the bread was so marked to confound evil spirits ... At Druid spring festivals, which celebrated the lengthening sun-filled days of the planting season, the sun's symbol was a circle bisected by two lines into four squares which represented the four seasons.
Bread was the staff of life, and bread baked on Good Friday was especially potent. Over the years, the bun became associated with Good Friday, and in England's West Country, it was the custom to hang a hot cross bun from the ceiling from one Easter season to the next, to ward off those evil spirits. [This was likely a manifestation of the English folkloric belief, recounted in in this Wikipedia entry, that hot cross buns made on Good Friday will not spoil or go moldy for the rest of the year.]
On Good Friday, if anyone ate at all, the meal consisted of barley bread, plain cress and water. Most people spent the whole day in church and work was discouraged. Conversely, Good Friday was considered a lucky day to plant crops, so farmers made it a point to sow a little grain or a few potatoes.
Considering the austerity of most Good Friday food traditions, it is surprising that in England the day's special treats are hot cross buns. Studded with currants and bits of candied fruit, the sweet little round buns are thought to have originated at St. Alban's Abbey in 1361 A.D. where the monks distributed them as alms to the poor. In 1592, a royal decree stated that bakers could only sell spiced breads during special occasions, such as the Friday before Easter.