A Brief History of Hot Cross Buns

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Hot cross buns on white paper Bellbird Bakery Christchurch

A little sweet, a lot of spice and all things nice; hot cross buns have long been a staple at Eastertime. But why are hot cross buns eaten over Easter? And where do they come from?

Let’s take a delicious journey through time and explore the history of hot cross buns.

Pagan origins

The origins of hot cross buns are shrouded in mystery, but historians believe they date back to the pagan traditions of ancient Britain. The Saxons used to bake buns marked with a cross during their spring celebrations to honour Eostre, the goddess of dawn and fertility. The cross symbolised the four quarters of the moon, a nod to the natural cycles of the season. It’s likely Eostre is the origin of the word Easter.

Christian adoption

As Christianity spread throughout England, the church adapted many pagan customs (sounds familiar doesn’t it?). By the 12th century, these springtime buns were given a religious interpretation, with the cross representing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

In the late 14th century, Father Thomas Rockcliffe started distributing such buns to the poor in St Albans (a town in Hertfordshire, England) on Good Friday. This cemented the association of hot cross buns with Easter and the end of Lent. The buns were typically made with ingredients that were forbidden during Lent, such as sugar and butter, making them a special treat for the end of the fasting period.

Elizabethan era: attempt at regulation

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the popularity of hot cross buns had grown so much that they were seen as a threat to the newly established Church of England. In 1592, a decree was issued limiting the sale of hot cross buns to funerals, Christmas and Good Friday. But the people couldn’t be kept from their beloved buns, and they began baking them in secret.

Sweet evolution and Street cry

The Victorian era brought about a transformation in the recipe and appearance of hot cross buns. Bakers began to add dried fruits, such as currants and raisins, and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, making them sweeter and more aromatic. The cross, originally made from dough, was now often made from flour and water.

Around that time, hot cross buns became a popular street food in England, with vendors selling them on Good Friday. They would sell them still hot from the oven – hence the “hot” in the name. This is when the popular song “One a penny, Two a penny” came about, first used as a street cry, then later becoming a nursery rhyme. One a penny if the buns were large, two a penny if they were small.

Beliefs and superstitions

But hot cross buns aren’t just associated with religious symbolism. There were also many superstitions surrounding them. It was believed they could cure illness and protect against shipwrecks. People also thought eating a hot cross bun on Good Friday would bring good luck and protect against illness. Hot cross buns made on Good Friday were believed to keep for a whole year! (Remember, this is well before the era of food preservatives, commonly used in supermarket baked goods nowadays.)

Modern variations: A global treat

Since their first recorded apparition in the UK, hot cross buns have travelled to many parts of the world. They are now enjoyed in most countries of the Commonwealth, including Australia and New Zealand.

Most bakers would agree that the traditional recipe made of spices, orange and raisins will never go out of fashion. But it doesn’t stop some from experimenting with different ingredients and shapes! From the well-known chocolate version to the more inventive coffee-flavoured or even savoury variations, the variety of recipes out there is outstanding. And while most people enjoy their hot cross buns slathered with butter, in South Africa, they are often enjoyed with a slice of cheese.

Hot cross buns on a tray, waiting to be baked

At Bellbird, we favour a traditional base recipe with a secret blend of spices. We are proud to say that our hot cross buns are also 100% plant-based.

The enduring appeal of Hot Cross Buns

So why do we continue to eat hot cross buns every Easter? Well, for one, they are delicious. But they are also a way to connect with the traditions of the past and honour the religious significance of Easter. Plus, they are a great excuse to treat yourself to something sweet and spicy. After all, it is tradition. 😋

There you have it, a bit of history behind the delicious hot cross bun. From religion to royalty, these sweet buns have stood the test of time. At the end of the day, all that really matters is how delicious they taste! So go ahead, indulge in a hot cross bun or two this Easter.

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