Baking hot cross buns on Thursday so we could have them at breakfast on Good Friday morning set me thinking about how come, in our house, we eat this ‘tea-time type’ bun for breakfast … and why, when supermarkets have them on the shelves for months, do we only eat them on Good Friday at home … and whether this was just a quirk of our family.
As with every question today, I was quickly on the internet to research it, however, as you will know, you need to choose your sources carefully. I am indebted to recipewise.co.uk for an excellent rendition of the whys and wherefores of the hot cross bun – from which I have extracted the core information I sought.
To start with, Hot Cross Buns for breakfast is not just a family quirk. (phew) It seems that the practice of eating the Hot Cross bun (also known as Good Friday buns) for breakfast goes back at least until the 1600s, with evidence from Pepys and. later, from Samuel Johnson in ‘The Life Of Samuel Johnson’, by James Boswell, published 1791: “On the 9th of April , being Good Friday, I breakfasted with him on tea and cross-buns … On April 18 , (being Good-Friday) I found him at breakfast, in his usual manner upon that day, drinking tea without milk, and eating a cross bun to prevent faintness”.
As to the history of the bun I am jumping ahead. Like the origins of Easter Eggs, the ‘spiced fruit bun’ probably evolved from the pre-christian celebration of the spring and dawn goddess Eastre where in Anglo-Saxon times ‘a bread dough was studded with dried fruits and baked in small loaves’. As Christianity spread these were ‘marked with a cross’ and linked to the crucifixion on Good Friday and so ‘absorbed or acquired’ by the Christian religion – and as they were within the Lenten season they were a real treat yet eating them was blessed.
Indeed the practice of marking all bread-doughs with a cross was widespread by the Middle-ages – particularly as it was thought that the sign helped ward off evil spirits and prevent the bread going mouldy or stale. However, with the rise of Puritanism, this widespread use of the cross was seen as ‘superstitious’ and thus ‘Popery’ and was frowned upon and eventually only the sanctioned ‘Hot Cross Bun’ was permitted to have the cross marked on it, and only to be eaten on Good Friday in remembrance of the crucifixion.
By the early 1700s these delicacies were sold on the streets by baker’s boys and coster (barrow) boys and women (with baskets instead of barrows for this day) Their cry of ‘One a penny, two a penny, Hot Cross Buns’ is a rhyme that was also brought to mind and sung to myself as I baked our buns and is a popular Nursery Rhyme today.
Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny two a penny – Hot cross buns
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons
One a penny two a penny – Hot cross buns
The superstitions that were prevalent in the Middle-Ages started with the belief that the cross on the dough warded off the evil spirits lingered on. It is said that a hot cross bun all made and baked on Good Friday before sunrise will never go mouldy and if kept in the house will protect it from fire. Which reminds me of the famous pub The Widows Son where they used to hang a new Hot Cross bun from the ceiling each year on Good Friday. The story behind this being that a widow’s son was due home from sea on Good Friday, and she baked him Hot Cross Buns. However, he never made it and was never seen again. Every Good Friday she made him a special bun right until the day she died. Her cottage later became the pub and the tradition began of hanging the ‘widow’s son’s hot cross bun’ from the ceiling. Unfortunately – the ‘protection from fire’ part of the superstition wasn’t working well as part of the pub burned down in the 1980’s. However, they continue the ceremony today with a special bun placed in a net by the youngest of the local Navy Reserves who come to the pub for the occasion.
Who would have thought there was so much to know about a fruit bun! And if you’d like my recipe for Hot Cross Buns – go to the recipe drop-downs.
So – here come the Hot Cross Questions:
When do you eat your Hot Cross Buns? Tea time or Breakfast? Let’s take a poll here!
What do you think about the supermarket practice of having Hot Cross Buns available from before Shrove Tuesday to well after WhitSunday?
Do share your thoughts – you know I love to hear from you!