I received an email message this week from a local bakery advertising their production of Hot Cross Buns. I was surprised, because Hot Cross Buns, to me, are a British phenomenon, and I have rarely met anyone in the U.S. who has heard of them, aside from other British transplants. The fact that the advert said I could order them on line and pick them up on Saturday or Easter Sunday, made me realize that the bakery didn’t know much about the tradition they were perpetrating; Hot Cross Buns are eaten on Good Friday, and not over the weekend. I will attempt to correct that misunderstanding when I pick mine up on Saturday. The notice made me wonder about the origins of the tradition which I had never thought about before. Google to the rescue, and I was amazed at what I found. I had always assumed Hot Cross Buns had something to do with the bible story of Jesus being crucified on the cross, but I was wrong. They go back much further.
Almost all civilizations, cultures, and religions, include bread as an integral component of religious and secular observances. The breads are typically enriched, and may contain dairy, eggs, sweeteners, and inclusions. Hot Cross Buns have been synonymous with Easter celebrations since they appeared in 12th century England. However, Hot Cross Buns pre-date Christianity, with their origins in paganism. Ancient Egyptians used small round breads topped with crosses to celebrate the gods. The cross divided the bread into four equal sections, representing the four phases of the moon and/or the four seasons, depending on the occasion.
Later, Greeks and Romans offered similar sweetened rolls in tribute to Eos, the goddess of the morning, and to Eostre, the goddess of light, who, much later, lent her name to the Easter observances. The cross on top symbolized the horns of a sacrificial ox. The English word “bun” is a derivation of the Greek word for ceremonial cakes and breads.
In the Middle Ages, home bakers marked their loaves with crosses before baking. They believed the cross would ensure a successful bake, warding off the evil spirits that inhibit the bread from rising. This superstition gradually faded, except for marking Good Friday, but was replaced by another superstition. This superstition said that the loaves and buns should be hung from the ceiling like sausages. It was believed that the bread would never mould, and would provide protection against evil spirits and illness until the following Good Friday when the loaves and buns would be replaced. In the event of illness, a portion of bread could be removed from its string and crushed to a powder, which was incorporated into water for therapeutic effect. During the same period, Jews hung bread and a container of water from the ceiling to ward off cholera. They believed its power was so strong that one loaf in one house would protect the whole community.
It was in the 12th century that an English monk decorated his freshly baked buns with a cross on Good Friday, also known as the Day of the Cross. The custom gained traction, and over the years, fruits and precious spices were added to represent health and prosperity.
Spiced buns were banned when the English broke ties with the Catholic Church in the 16th century. However, by 1592, Queen Elizabeth I relented, and granted permission for commercial bakers to produce the buns for funerals, Christmas, and Easter. The bakers argued that a cross cut into a loaf or bun induced a more pronounced rise in the oven: an axiom of baking then, which still exists today.
Farmers began to place hot cross buns in their stored grain to distract mice and other pests, much the way shoofly pie was used by American housewives. By the early 19th century, the Bun House of Chelsea, famous for Chelsea buns, was the largest producer of Hot Cross Buns. It remained so for over a century until the building was demolished.
Once an English specialty, the buns’ popularity has become a seasonal staple around the world and is included in Le Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie as one of the Breads of the World. They even have their own nursery rhyme.
“One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns! If you’ve no daughters, give them to your sons, And if you’ve no kind of pretty little elves, Why then good faith, e’en eat them all yourselves”
“One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns! Butter them and sugar them and put them in your muns (i.e. mouths). Hot cross buns, hot cross buns! One a penny poker, two a penny tongs, three a penny fire shovel, Hot cross buns!”