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.
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.
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.