Hot Cross Buns

One a penny, two a penny … They may cost a bit more today, but hot cross buns are still eaten as part of many people’s Easter season celebrations. Although supermarkets often have had them on the shelves months before, these treats are traditionally eaten on Good Friday.

2. Nursery rhyme

The traditional poem “Hot Cross Buns” and illustration as appeared in The Old, Old Nursery Rhymes, 1907 (ref:1995.56.4

From a Christian perspective, the buns are eaten to celebrate the end of Lent – the 40 days before Easter that are traditionally a time of fasting or observing other forms of restricted behaviour. The cross on the top is meant to signify the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and the spices represent those used in the embalming processes of the time.

One story of the significance of buns at Easter goes back to a monk from St Albans in England, Father Thomas Rocliffe. In 1361 he made spiced buns marked with a cross for distribution to the poor on Good Friday.

Another goes back even further to the Saxon goddess of light, Ēostre or Ostara, who later gave her name to the Christian Easter. She was celebrated during spring by baking and eating spiced buns which had a cross marked on top to represent the four seasons of the year.

From these mixed origins, the buns became increasingly popular. When Christianity became the dominant religion in the British Isles, the buns were banned, possibly because the Church feared the magical powers of the buns. What powers could a bun have? Well, some people believed the humble hot cross bun was more than just a food. They were believed to ward off evil spirits and they would protect a ship from wrecking if they were carried aboard for the voyage. If they were hung in the kitchen they would prevent any fires from occurring, and would also ensure any bread baked in that kitchen would turn out perfectly.

Some believed if you shared a hot cross bun with a friend it guaranteed your friendship for the following year. And others kept them for medicinal purposes, believing that they would cure a patient of illness. It was also thought that if they were baked on Good Friday they would not spoil or grow mould.

The buns became so popular that Queen Elizabeth I passed a law declaring they could only be sold on Good Friday, at Christmas or for a funeral. To get around this law, people started making them at home and it became too hard to police.

1. Chronicle piece

This article from the Wanganui Chronicle newspaper on 23 April 1892 shows one minister’s displeasure at his congregation eating hot cross buns at the wrong time (ref:1998.41.348)

Soon these buns were welcomed back in the shops and today there are a large variety of hot cross buns available – traditional spicy and fruity, fruitless, chocolate, caramel, apple and cinnamon; and if you make them yourself you can put whatever you like in them.

The oldest known hot cross bun is over 200 years old. A couple in Essex, England, own this bun, accompanied by a letter stating it was made on Good Friday in 1807.  Rather than having the cross on the top made from  flour and water mix, it has been impressed with a blade, and there appears to be considerably less fruit than in today’s varieties. Although it is rock hard, it hasn’t gone mouldy, so maybe there is truth to some of the legends.


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Easter Holidays

For those local, those nearby, and those who wish to make a visit, check out our programme of activities for the upcoming Easter Holidays.  Hetty the Hen will be returning to lay your favourite Easter treats.  Movies will be shown to entertain the young and the young-at-heart.  Colouring in, creativity and crosswords are also on offer!

Come on in and join in the fun!

WRM Autumn School Holiday Programme

Easter Programme 2015

Easter Celebrations

We recently celebrated Easter. Of primary importance in the Christian calendar, Easter has become an annual event for many others as well, with celebratory eggs and chocolate rabbits being handed out and many looking forward to a long weekend.

Easter is the Christian festival of the resurrection of Jesus, celebrated at a similar time to Jewish Passover. Early records indicate Easter has been celebrated from at least the middle of the 2nd century. The rites and rituals around Easter differ between Christian cultures and denominations, but observance usually starts around 40 days before Easter Sunday and continues for 7-50 days afterwards. These times are accompanied by different traditions including fasting or feasting, special services and robes worn by the clergy, and periods of quiet contemplation or joyous celebration.

A chasuble, an embroidered robe from St Marys Catholic Church in Whanganui, worn by a priest during the liturgy of Eastertide, covering Easter and the 50 days after.

So where do eggs come in? Several denominations forbade the eating of eggs in the lead-up to Easter, but as chickens do not stop laying at this time, a household’s egg store would be quite full by the end of it. The eggs were often hard-boiled or preserved and turned into a celebratory feast when the fasting was over, as they had to be eaten before going bad.

Painted Ostrich eggs

Painted Ostrich eggs

Eggshells have been decorated for thousands of years, and eggs have been commonly used as a symbol of life, fertility and rebirth. Early Christians used eggs to symbolise the tomb of Jesus and subsequent resurrection, and often dyed them red to symbolise the blood spilt during crucifixion. The Christian Church adopted the custom and now eggs are widely associated with Easter, although the traditional decorated hen’s egg is now more likely to be chocolate or plastic accompanied by sweets or toys.

So what do rabbits have to do with it? Rabbits and hares are a common symbol in medieval church art; at that time these animals were believed to be hermaphrodites and their ability to reproduce on their own aligned them with the Virgin Mary. They are also good breeders and thus another symbol of fertility.

The Easter Bunny?

The Easter Rabbit first appeared in Georg Franck von Franckenau’s De ovis paschalibus (About Easter Eggs) in 1632, where he talks of the German tradition of an Easter Hare bringing Easter Eggs for children. The Easter Bunny originated amongst German Lutherans and was the judge of a child’s character, deciding if they had been good or bad and leaving them eggs, sweets or toys the night before Easter Sunday.

An Easter Greeting card, c1909

An Easter Greeting card, c1909

If you want to avoid eggs and rabbits, why not just send an Easter card? These became popular in the late 19th century as a way to send an Easter greeting to a far-flung loved one rather than try to send them an egg through the post. And today there are websites dedicated to sending still or animated Easter e-cards at little or no charge.