Hot Cross Buns are one of those delicious treats that you can have at Easter. Until just a few years ago, they could only be found within a week or two of Easter but these days hundreds of millions are consumed from early Spring if not sooner.
Hot Cross Buns are a primarily British culinary tradition but are also common in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and parts of the USA but for those unfamiliar with them, why are they so popular?
The tradition of baking bread marked with a cross is linked has a long history. Romans would often have a cross in their bread but it is thought that this was to assist with portioning up the larger loaf into individual servings. The pagan Saxons would bake cross buns at the beginning of spring. Anglo-Saxons also had a variety of Hot Cross bun but as pagans the cross represented the rebirth of the world after winter and the four quarters of the moon, as well as the four seasons and the wheel of life.
As with most later sophisticated religions, Christianity was not above repurposing popular and ingrained traditions of local people and the cross obviously has very religious connotations.
In recent decades, a theory has come to light that Hot Cross Buns really took off due to a monk in the 14th century Abbey at St. Albans, a beautiful Cathedral just a few minutes away from where I write this.
According to some historians, it wasn’t until Tudor times that it was inescapably connected to Christian celebrations. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the London Clerk of Markets issued a decree forbidding the sale of spiced buns except at burials, at Christmas or on Good Friday.
The Church of England likes to set the distinctive baked goods, perhaps not unsurprisingly in a Christian context. They are historically eaten on Good Friday, and the symbolism is evident.
“You have got the bread, as per the communion, you have got the spices that represent the spices Jesus was wrapped in the tomb, and you have got the cross. They are fairly full of Christian symbolism,” says Steve Jenkins, Church of England spokesman.
But the Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference to hot cross buns is only from 1733. It’s in the form of the ditty: “Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.”
The fact that the words of the famous song appear in this reference does rather suggest that the term may have been around a while before that, but any history of the bun wanders into conjecture, says food historian Ivan Day, who runs the Historic Food website.
“The trouble with any folk food, any traditional food, is that no-one tended to write about them in the very early period.”
These people talk about hot cross buns being eaten for breakfast in London. Unlike contemporary buns, where the cross is piped lines of pastry, the original cross was cut into the bun.
Some of the earlier traditions included keeping bread baked on Good Friday to grate and use as a medicine in later years. It was believed that the buns would never go mouldy and they were sometimes nailed up in the house as a good luck charm.
Other old Easter customs like the tanzy, a bitter herb-flavoured cake, and a fig porridge have died out.”In the hot cross bun, you do have a surviving fossil of these customs,” says Mr Day. It cannot be proven, but the provenance of the buns may be more connected to Jewish Passover – with its sharing of unleavened bread as part of wider ritual – than Roman, Saxon, or pagan customs.
One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,
One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!’
In the East End of London there is a pub called The Widows Son, named after a widow who lived in a cottage at the site in the 1820s. The widow baked hot cross buns for her sailor son who was scheduled to return home from the sea on Good Friday. Sadly he must have died at sea as he never returned home, but the widow refused to give up hope for his return and continued to bake a hot cross bun for him every year, hanging it in her kitchen with the buns from previous years.
When the widow died, the buns were found hanging from a beam in the cottage and the story has been kept alive by the pub landlords ever since a pub was built on the site in 1848.
To this day, every Good Friday, the ceremony of the Widow’s Bun is celebrated and members of the Royal Navy come to The Widows Son pub to place a new hot cross bun into a net hung above the bar. Legend has it that the buns baked on Good Friday will not spoil.
Whilst I can’t comment on the accuracy of the legend, it must be said that I have 3 Hot Cross Buns from last Easter; there used to be 4 but I ate one a few weeks ago and very nice it was too.