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Hot cross buns on a wooden chopping board

Why do we eat hot cross buns on Good Friday?

These spicy, fruity little cakes have a troubled past, no matter how delicious they might be.

Hot cross buns were banned in London in 1582 for their supposed supernatural qualities | Image: Shutterstock

Most of us of a certain age in the UK will not only remember the following rhyme, but the accompanying melody will play along as we read the immortal lines.

“Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns, One ha’penny, Two ha’penny, Hot Cross Buns! If you have no daughters, Give them to your son. One ha’penny, Two ha’penny, Hot Cross Buns.”

The famous springtime treats were formally known as simply ‘cross buns’, with the ‘hot’ probably originating from the ditty, "Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross bunns," as cited in a 1733 version of the Oxford English Dictionary. However, these spicy, fruity little cakes have a troubled past, no matter how delicious they might be.

For example, in 1582 London, cross buns were temporarily banned because they were believed to have supernatural qualities, along the lines of warding off evil and curing illnesses. 10 years later, Queen Elizabeth had banned them entirely, unless for funerals and, of course, Good Friday.

And speaking of Good Friday, what’s so good about it? Why are we indulging in a sweet treat on the day Jesus Christ was executed, and decorating them with one of the most barbaric contraptions ever invented?

For a start, the ‘good’ is a bit of a linguistic oversight, certainly in Ecumenical terms. I mean, how many kids have quizzed their parents/teachers etc., and asked what’s so ‘good’ about nailing a person to a lump of wood and leaving them there until they die? The standard "it’s good because He died for our sins" response doesn’t cut it, frankly.

A better answer would be the correct one: explain to the kids that one of the old English words for ‘good’, was ‘holy’ (‘hālig’). Therefore, the original intention was ‘holy’, which makes a lot more sense.

Less sense is to be made of a delicious doughy bun that is inscribed with a method of prolonged, torturous death. I can’t imagine the thinking behind that! Right before they bite down on a coveted foodstuff filled with highly prized ingredients, why not hit the consumer with a symbol to recall agonising pain and suffering!? In marketing terms, it’s a disaster.

The possible answer lies in the appropriation of secular symbology without actually explaining its significance in Christian terms. An excavation of the ruins of Pompeii revealed the remains of cross-marked cakes. These may well have been used by Ancient Romans as gifts honouring Diana, goddess of the hunt and moon. Or not, as the case may be. Whether this inspired pagans to celebrate spring by decorating bread with a cross is unknown, as is the exact significance of their symbolic cross - if such a thing existed in the first place.

One possible theory suggests that an ox was annually sacrificed in recognition of Eostre, the Germanic Goddess of Fertility or spring, and Eostre is very likely the etymology of Easter. The theory is somewhat bolstered by the fact that the word 'bun' derives from the Anglo-Saxon word 'boun' meaning 'sacred ox'. Or maybe that was the inspiration for the whole ox/annual sacrifice shtick.

Either way, it makes far more sense to see the cross on the bun as something with positive connotations (unless of course, you’re an ox), a symbol to enhance the pleasure of eating a fruity cake on a lovely spring day, not bring you down with thoughts of executing people.

With that in mind, the most logical theory for the cross on the bun might be something far more pragmatic, that it was cut into the bread to make it easier to break and share. This would be similar to the unleavened bread that features during Passover, which begins on Good Friday.

That leaves us with one, last question. Where did the recipe originate? I mean, the modern ingredients of a hot cross bun are flour, yeast, sugar, eggs, butter, milk, and spices with the addition of raisins, candied peel, and cranberries are well known.

However, pagan recipes for such a cake are lost in the annals of time (if they ever existed in the first place). Furthermore, the ingredients of a sweet cake (honey, pure wine, raisin wine, pine nuts, cooked spelt and crushed toasted hazelnuts) cited in the Apicius, a 2000-year-old collection of Roman recipes, could have been used for anything. It also doesn’t sound anything like the hot cross buns we know of today.

Perhaps the best candidate for that is the Alban Bun, named after St Albans Abbey where, in 1361, a monk baked small spiced cakes to give to the poor on Good Friday. The ingredients include flour, eggs, fresh yeast, currants, cardamom and grains of paradise (which have flavours of pepper, coriander, ginger and citrus) with a cross cut into the top of the bun. Sound familiar?

Actually, is it too early for some chocolate eggs?