Hot cross buns are traditionally an Easter treat made popular by the British, who have enjoyed these doughy buns for centuries. They are as much a part of Easter as chocolate eggs, Easter bunnies and daffodils.
However not all consumers today actually realize their significance, and how the humble hot cross bun has evolved through the ages.
The hot cross bun has somewhat of a chequered past. Although these tasty treats are normally associated with Christianity, their origins date back to pre-Christian times, when Pagans worshiping the goddess Eostre (from whom Easter takes its name) ate small cakes decorated with a cross. During Pagan times (when the conservation of food was a problem), these cakes had a special significance as they could be kept and stored for as long as a year without going mouldy.
Hot Cross Buns and Christianity
The Romans were the first to introduce hot cross buns to England. Shortly after, the buns drew their associations with Lent when in 1361, on Good Friday, a monk gave them to the poor people of St Albans in Hertfordshire. He had piped a cross of dough mixture on the top of the bun, instead of the traditional recipe, integrating a cross in the bun itself. This sweet doughy bread heralded a delicious way to celebrate the season of abstinence and henceforth hot cross buns became popular with not only the poor but with the more affluent British.
The dough to make hot cross buns was actually the same recipe used in Catholic communion wafers. In Protestant times during the reign of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth I tried to ban the buns, as they represented a return to Catholicism. Such was their popularity, however, that she was unsuccessful in banning the bun totally but passed a law that bakeries could only sell them at Easter and Christmas.
Today, although these buns can now be enjoyed at any time of the year, their religious significance (with the cross standing for the symbol of cruxifiction) has lead to them becoming a staple Easter food, traditionally eaten on Good Friday.
However, in 2003, the controversy over the hot cross bun resurfaced again with several local councils in England banning the buns from being served in their schools at Easter. They did so in the name of political correctness and on the grounds that they could be offensive to non-Christians.
Hot Cross Buns and Their Healing Powers
During ancient times buns baked on Good Friday were also credited to have healing powers. Not only were these light doughy buns, made from white flour, (when most people lived on coarse wholemeal breads) considered a delicacy, they were used in to treat illnesses. Eaten in powdered form it was believed that the mixture could heal the sick.
Hanging a hot cross bun from the kitchen ceiling was also thought to ward off the presence of evil in the coming year, until a fresh batch was made the following Easter.
For many British, the smell of freshly baked hot cross buns wafting through the kitchen at Easter time is unmistakable. With their aromatic spices, tasty dried fruit filling and soft sweet dough, the humble hot cross bun provides a tasty teatime snack or a delicious breakfast food, to be enjoyed particularly on Good Friday.