Curious Questions: Why do we eat hot cross buns at Easter?

Annunciata Elwes traces the curious history of the hot cross bun in Britain.

‘This is the season at which all good Christians devour hot cross buns for breakfast, under the comfortable impression that a religious duty is being performed.’

So stated the magazine Figaro in London in 1836. Despite the enduring popularity of the hot cross bun — Tesco alone sell 70 million by the end of Easter weekend — it’s doubtful that any person today savouring a toasted and buttered one at breakfast, teatime or at any other time for that matter much considers the godliness of their action.

Traditionally eaten on Good Friday to commemorate the Crucifixion, hot cross buns found an enemy in Elizabeth I, who, in 1592, finding too much Popery in their popularity, banned their consumption except on specific holidays. The embargo was eventually lifted and, by the 1700s, sweet, spicy, fruity buns were sold on the streets of towns and cities with the familiar cry of ‘one a penny, two a penny’ (a penny bought you a large bun or two small ones).

They were first recorded in the 1773 Poor Robin’s Almanack, which seems rather late considering that, in the 14th century, a monk in St Albans is said to have distributed them among the needy.

Looking even further back, some have claimed that loaves marked with a cross found at Herculaneum are the original precursors to hot cross buns. It’s technically possible that this was a commemorative act – Christ had been nailed to the cross half a century earlier after all, and some claim that there were Christians in Pompeii by AD79 – but it’s likely they were incised in this way to make them easier to break apart.

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Whatever the truth of it, we know for certain that crossed buns were eaten by the Saxons to honour Eostre, celebrated in April, whose name, according to the Venerable Bede, is the origin of the word Easter. For Eostre, goddess of the dawn and fertility, the cross symbolised the four quarters of the Moon. As was often the case, a Christian tradition was stamped on top of a pagan festival, turning Eostre’s feast into a celebration of Christ. And so the cross atop the bun came to stand for not only the Crucifixion, but also the intersection of the Earth (horizontal) with Heaven (vertical) — the human and the divine.

In the 12th century an Anglican monk baked the buns and marked them with a cross in honor of Good Friday. they became a symbol of Easter weekend.

Later enthusiasts included, unsurprisingly, Samuel Pepys, who enjoyed a hearty ‘Lenten supper’ of buns washed down with ale, and Dr Johnson, who, on Good Friday in 1783, sensibly breakfasted on ‘tea without milk, and… a cross bun to prevent faintness’. Whether Dr Johnson concerned himself with the pious nature of his repast, or with the myriad superstitions surrounding the sticky confections, is unknown.

These included the practice of sharing a bun to ensure lasting friendship (‘Half for you and half for me,/Between us two shall goodwill be’), taking a bun to sea to prevent shipwreck and, most common of all, hanging a bun in the kitchen for a year to bring luck (and, hopefully, not too many flies), hence:

Good Friday comes this month the old woman runs
With one or two a-penny hot cross buns,
Whose virtue is, if you believe what’s said,
They’ll not grow mouldy like the common bread.

There exists, in Essex, a hot cross bun that was baked more than 200 years ago, in 1807, and another in London is dated 1821, giving credence to the belief that a bun baked on Good Friday doesn’t decay, although Lord (or perhaps Eostre) knows why.

Other superstitions are more rom-antic: in 1855, The Illustrated London News recorded: ‘Young ladies are fond of preserving hot-cross buns. They puncture the date on its back with pins, and put it away, like a bag of lavender, in their drawers. Whoever keeps one of these mealy treasures for an entire twelvemonth is sure, it is said, to get married the next.’ Perhaps the way to a man’s heart really is through his stomach?

Although their price has increased considerably over the past few centuries, hot-cross buns have, thankfully, stayed the same. Today, as in 1836, ‘the little boys devour hot cross buns with a most sacred Gusto, which shows that… the youth of the present day are the very best performers of the religious duty’.

This article was originally published in 2019