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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.

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)

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.

  • 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


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