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The Origins of Easter Foods: The History behind Hot Cross Buns, Chocolate Eggs and Simnel Cake

Today, Easter is very much a commercial business. By January supermarkets are packed with rows upon rows of different sizes and colours of chocolate eggs, gleaming in their foil packaging. Cellophane packets of identical hot cross buns lie on packed shelves. Those disappointed when Christmas Cake starts to become scarce will be pleased at the Easter arrival of the Simnel Cake, its dense rich fruitiness interrupted by a layer of sweet marzipan running through it. With its design of eleven balls of marzipan standing proudly on top, it is a welcome and often show stopping treat at the Easter celebrations.

But what of these foods before supermarkets existed? When did we start to enjoy these foods and why did they become associated with Easter? A look back through history helps us understand the origins of hot cross buns, chocolate eggs and Simnel Cake.

The History of Eating Hot Cross Buns at Easter

In his book “New British Classics”(BBC Books, 2001), Gary Rhodes notes that the hot cross bun may date from Pagan times, the cross piped on the top of the bun not representing the crucifixion of Christ but the four seasons of the year. Other writers argue that the cross represents the four phases of the moon. This nods back to a time when the world was run more to the rhythms of nature than the ticking of the clock. It is believed that the Easter festival as we know it today has been adapted from the Pagan festival “Eostre”, which celebrated a time of birth and the fruitfulness of the earth after winter. There is very little evidence to suggest that these small round buns originated in pre-Christianity although a good theoretical case can be made.

What is perhaps more interesting than the actual “invention” of the bun, is how it was used in Easter celebrations by our ancestors. Elizabeth David, in her book “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” (Penguin Books, Middlesex 1979), notes an early reference to the hot cross bun in 1592. Elizabeth I passed a decree which made it unlawful to make or sell the buns on any day other than on certain special occasions. One of these occasions was Good Friday.

Today, hot cross buns are widely and easily available, and are normally eaten plain or toasted and smeared whilst still hot with butter. They are delicately spiced and are only available to buy around Easter.

How Chocolate Eggs came to be Associated with Easter

Considering that Easter is believed to have been originally a Pagan celebration, it is understandable why many believe that the symbolism of eggs may have its origins in this period. Eggs have long been a symbol of birth, and rebirth – and the “egg” symbol may have been used to mark the Pagan “Eostre” festival. Little evidence however survives from this period.

Hens eggs were however painted and dyed and given as pretty, fragile Easter gifts in the 1800s, as noted on the Hotel Chocolat website. The Easter egg was first mentioned in chocolate form in 1875, when it was made by the confectionary giant Cadbury, in England.

Nowadays the giving of chocolate eggs has become synonymous with Easter. The eggs themselves have become much more sophisticated, appealing to all tastes. Special “diabetic” Easter eggs can be bought for those on particular diets. There are luxurious eggs, cheaper quality eggs, eggs in mugs, tiny mini-eggs, and chocolate moulded in the shape of bunnies. That one chocolate egg produced by Cadbury 135 years ago started a craze which now sees the Easter egg market in the UK worth around £200 million per year (The Telegraph).

The History behind Simnel Cake and its Easter Origins

Similar in taste to a Christmas Cake, Simnel Cake is a rich fruit cake with a layer of sweet almond-scented marzipan baked running through the centre of it. It is then topped with another layer of marzipan and then eleven small balls of marzipan are placed in a circle on top.

The eleven balls represent the eleven true Disciples of Christ. Judas is, of course, notably absent. There is a tradition which states that the cake was given when people went “Mothering”. This was not initially an early reference to Mother’s Day, which occurs a few weeks before Easter in the UK, but a time when people would visit their “Mother” church, the largest in the parish. Families would meet up at this larger place of worship and exchange gifts or share food. As time went by, and the emphasis was placed on more secular forms of the custom, the occasion was changed more literally – to visiting the mother of the family.

Although often attributed to being of medieval origin, an early reference to Simnel Cake is in the work of Robert Herrick, a poet in the seventeenth century. He wrote in 1648: “I’ll go to thee a Simnel bring, ‘Gainst thou’ go’st a Mothering, So that when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.” (The Works of Robert Herrick).

Simnel Cake is widely eaten at Easter and can be found in all supermarkets between January and April. Perhaps not as synonymous nowadays with the celebration as chocolate eggs or hot cross buns, it is not to be forgotten.

The History Behind Easter Treats

The history behind our Easter food is not to be forgotten. This Easter, as we pick up another mass-produced cellophane wrapper of moulded chocolate, spiced buns or fruit cake we should remember the stories behind these foods and how they have formed so much of our custom today.

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