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Hot Cross Buns


(or 'Cross-Buns', 'Crossbuns')

Walter Crane's illustration for the Hot Cross Bun rhyme in his 'The Baby's Bouquet' (1877)

Soft, sweet, leavened bread buns, often with currants, flavoured with sweet spices, marked on top with a cross, usually of flour-and-water paste or icing, sometimes in pastry strips or cut into the bun surface. An Easter-time tradition. Despite the name, almost always served cold.

A Batch of Hot Cross Buns
Image: www.christinascucina.com

They were formerly known simply as 'cross buns', and may derive from the Church practice of distributing 'holy' buns on the otherwise fasting day of Good Friday. By the 18th and into the 19th centuries it seems to have become the practice to hawk Cross-Buns through the streets on Good Friday, a day when all ordinary shops would be closed, and it is from the customary cry of the hawkers that the modern name comes. James Boswell's 'Life Johnson' (1773) has; "On the 9th April, being Good Friday, I breakfasted with him on tea and cross-buns." As late as 1861, in George Fairfield Sala's 'Twice round the Clock' there is; "What becomes of all the cold crossbuns after Good Friday?"

Original Receipt in 'The Cook and Housekeeper's Dictionary' by Mary Eaton (Eaton 1822);

CROSS BUNS. Warm before the fire two pounds and a half of fine flour; add half a pound of sifted loaf sugar, some coriander seeds, cinnamon and mace finely pounded. Melt half a pound of butter in half a pint of milk; after it has cooled, stir in three table-spoonfuls of thick yeast, and a little salt. Work the whole into a paste, make it into buns, and cut a cross on the top. Put them on a tin to rise before the fire, brush them over with warm milk, and bake in a moderate oven.

It has been suggested, without any evidence at all, that the buns may derive from the decorated honey-cakes placed on Roman altars, the cross being either the horns of the sacred ox in the cult of Mithras, or a representation of the four quarters of the moon made in honour of Diana at the time of the spring equinox.

Dr Ditchfield's 'Old English Sports' of 1891 asserts that "Hot cross buns are a relic of an ancient rite of the Saxons, who ate cakes in honour of the goddess of spring."

Although there is a much-repeated story that in 1361 that a monk from St Albans called Thomas Rocliffe made spiced cakes marked with a cross for distribution to the poor on Good Friday, the first recorded use of the name is not until 1733 when it apears in 'Poor Robin's Almanack' (OED)

The compendium "All the Year Round" for 1889 tells us that; "In Cornwall, the virtue of hot cross buns is thought to extend not only to the house and its inhabitants, but also to the cattle on the farm. And a writer on Cornish folklore says : "In some of our farm-houses the Good Friday cake may be seen hanging to the bacon rack, slowly but surely diminishing, until the return of the season replaces it by a fresh one. It is of sovereign good in all manner of diseases that may afflict the family, or flocks and herds. I have seen a little of this cake grated into a warm mash for a sick cow." Poor Robin, in his almanack for 1753, says of these preserved buns : Whose virtue is, if you believe what's said, They'll not grow mouldy like the common bread. For a century and a half Chelsea was famous for its special buns, as much as two hundred and fifty pounds having been taken on one Good Friday morning at the Chelsea Bun House. On Good Friday morning, 1839, nearly a quarter of a million buns were made and sold."

Hot Cross Buns are associated with a number of traditions and superstitions:

● That Hot Cross Buns were the only food allowed to be eaten by the faithful on Good Friday.
● They are to be made from dough used for the consecrated bread at Mass.
● That Dried and powdered hot cross buns have miraculous healing powers.
● A Hot Cross Bun hung from the kitchen ceiling will protect the house for a year.
● That bread baked on Good Friday will never rise unless the cross is marked on it.
● That Queen Elizabeth I attempted to ban them.

A number of pubs keep the tradition of preparing commemorative cross buns each year...

Commemorative Cross Bun at the 'Widow's Son', London
Image: http://widowsson.co.uk

Cross Buns hung from the ceiling at The Bell Inn, Horndon-on-the-Hill in Essex

The 'Hot Cross Bun' cry in 'An Eighth Book of Glees, Canons and Catches' of 1795

The Hot Cross Bun rhyme, thought by the folklorists Iona and Peter Opie to be known at least from 'The Christmas Box', published in London in 1798, and, by references elsewhere, at least to the 1730's, goes;
Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
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!

...which doesn't quite make sense. But Henry Mayhew's vast 'London labour and the London Poor' of 1851 recounts a tradesman telling of an earlier version:

One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns
If your daughters will not eat them give them to your sons,
But if you haven't any of those pretty little elves
You cannot then do better than eat them all yourselves

The 'Hot Cross Bun' song from 'The Illustrated Book of Nursery Rhymes and Songs', 1865

More recently HCB's have appeared with a variety of extras, including chocolate and Marmite. Not everyone has been pleased about this (with thanks to @FoodyFolklore)...

Gavin Ashenden, formerly honorary chaplain to the Queen at St James's Palace, has condemned hot cross buns with additional ingredients such as chocolate, cheese or caramel as "the devil at work". "It's not an accident they have been warped," he says, adding, "Hot cross buns stand for the struggle between the world as it is and the world as we want it to be." He claims the "indulgent ingredients" are "enlarging appetites" and distracting consumers from the bun's true religious meaning.
Daily Mail, 21 Mar 2021


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