The History of the Hot Cross Bun

 I’m enjoying tucking into my Favourite Festive Food … Hot Cross Buns … and musing over the confusion surrounding this yeasty, spicy treat.


The origin of this English custom, brought to Australia by the first settlers and embraced by following generations, is not entirely clear.  In many historically Christian countries, the buns are traditionally eaten hot or toasted on Good Friday, with the cross seen as a symbol for the Crucifixion.

Some, however, believe the Christian church adopted Hot Cross Buns during their early missionary efforts to pagan cultures and re-interpreted the “cross”, which adorns the bun, to the cross on which Jesus sacrificed His life, as they have done with many other Easter activities.

It is said that buns marked with a cross were eaten by Saxons in honour of the goddess “Eostre“, with the cross thought to symbolise the four quarters of the moon. “Eostre” is believed to be the origin of the name “Easter”.  Still others claim that the Greeks marked cakes with a cross, much earlier, and possibly to make it easier to break apart.  To the ancient Aztects and Incas buns were considered the sacred food of the gods, and the Romans believed the cross represented the horns of a sacred ox.  The word “bun” is derived from the ancient word “boun”, used to describe this revered animal.

Some historians date the origin of Hot Cross Buns back to the 12th century when an Anglican monk was said to haves placed the sign of the cross on the buns to honour Good Friday, known at that time as the “Day of the Cross”.  Yet another more recent theory ties the tradition of the buns to a monk in 14th century St Albans who is said to have distributed spiced cakes to the needy on Good Friday.  Still further references tie them only into the Easter tradition from the Elizabethan era.  It is said that during the reign of Elizabeth I, when Roman Catholicism was banned, making the sign of the cross on the buns was regarded as popery.  It was also believed that they were baked from the dough used in making the communion wafer, so Elizabeth I passed a law permitting bakeries to sell them but only at Easter and Christmas.

Whatever their origins, there were certainly ideas associated with these buns which could be regarded as superstitions.  In the Middle Ages, they were believed to have powers of protection and healing.  People would hang a Hot Cross Bun from the rafters of their homes for protection throughout the coming year.  If hung in the kitchen, they were said to protect against fires and ensure that all breads turned out perfectly.  The hanging bun was replaced each year.

It was also believed that buns baked, and served, on Good Friday would not spoil or become mouldy throughout the coming year and such a bun would be kept for medicinal purposes. If someone was sick some of the dried bun would be ground into powder, mixed in water, and administered. A person was said to often recover quickly simply by eating a small piece of the bun.

Sharing a Hot Cross Bun with another was believed to ensure friendship throughout the coming year, particularly if,

“Half for you and half for me, Between us two shall goodwill be” 

was said at the time.  Because of the cross on the buns, some said they should be kissed before eaten.  If taken of a sea voyage, Hot Cross Buns were believed to protect against shipwreck.

Tansy Leaves

Other old Easter customs, like the tansy (a bitter herb flavoured cake) and fig porridge have died out. “In the hot cross bun, you do have a surviving fossil of these customs,” says food historian Ivan Day who runs the “Historic Food Website”.  “It can not be proven, but the provenance of the buns may be more connected to Jewish passover – with its sharing of unleavened bread as part of a wider ritual – than Roman, Saxon or pagan customs”.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference to Hot Cross Buns is in 1733.  It’s in the form of the ditty:

“Good Friday comes this Month,
The old woman runs,
With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns”

It does seem clear, however, that the terms was around long before 1776. In the words of Mr Day,

“The trouble with any folk food, any traditional food, is that no-one tended to write about them in the very early period”

This simple piece of spiced bread decorated with a cross, whilst not an extravagant treat, is a global food tradition which stretches way back in history.  A thought which gives a little tingle of pleasure, every Good Friday, as I wipe the butter from my chin and reach for another Hot Cross Bun.



© Copyright 2012. Catherine Crout-Habel. Seeking Susan ~ Meeting Marie ~ Finding Family