Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hot Cross Buns - A History

This is really meant as a follow-up post to Jessica's great sharing and recipe on the hot cross bun.

Many wonder about the use of icing on the bun - and I did too, particularly icing on Good Friday. It doesn't seem to make sense. I decided to look up a little more information and history on the tradition and custom of the Hot Cross Buns.

From Father Francis Weiser in Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (emphasis mine):
"It was a universal custom (and still is in Catholic countries) to mark a new loaf of break with the sign of the cross before cutting it, in order to bless it and thank God for it. On special occasions the cross was imprinted on the loaf before baking, as on the Christmas loaves in southern France and in Greece, the Kreuzstollen (cross loaf) in Germany, the cross bread of Mid-Lent among the Slavs. On Good Friday, loaves bearing an imprinted cross (Karfreitaglaib) are eaten in Austria. In England, from the end of the fourteenth century, buns were baked with a cross marked on them. They are said to have originated at Saint Alban's Abbey in 1361, where the monks distributed them to the poor. Whatever their origin, these "hot cross buns" became a famous Good Friday feature in England and Ireland, and later in this country. They were made of spiced dough, round in shape, with a cross made of icing on the top. In recent times these cross buns are sold not only on Good Friday but all through Lent."

I find it difficult to believe that devout Christians of the time, those in Ireland who often observed a Black Fast (taking only water or tea during the day) on Good Friday, would break the fast to eat a bun with icing. But, I could be wrong. It seems more plausible that the hot cross bun would be marked with the cross before baking as those from Saint Alban's Abbey were.

Interestingly, an entry at the Food Timeline seems to suggest that the cross was originally scored in the top of the bun with a knife and that the pastry or icing cross was a modern decorative feature as Jessica alluded to.

Many quibble over the date of their origin - they are first mentioned by name as "hot cross buns" in Poor Robin's Amanack in 1773. Most agree that they predate this mention. They are popular in Tudor days, as there are specific mentions of them being permitted to be baked under certain conditions by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. But, perhaps most fascinating is this mention taken from Sue Ellen Thompson's Holiday Symbols and Customs:
"When archaeologists excavated the ancient city of Herculaneum in southwestern Italy, which had been buried under volcanic ash and lava since 79 C.E., they found two small loaves, each with a cross on it, among the ruins."

An early hot cross bun?

And, if you're interested, Wikipedia has the entirety of the music based on the selling of the hot cross buns ( a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns...).

It is so interesting to dig into the rich history and traditions of our faith! Whether your hot cross buns are adorned with an icing cross, scored with a cross, or store bought, I pray your Good Friday is blessed with adoration and deep reflection of Our Lord's Passion and Crucifixion. Pin It


  1. From what I understand, the early buns were marked with a cross made out of thin ropes of pastry dough (pie crust), and the icing was a later innovation :) Yeah, I can't quite picture having a Black Fast with sweet buns, either.

    Thanks for all the background information! As my family is British, Hot Cross Buns is one of our yearly traditions for Holy Week.


  2. Yes, Bethany, many mention a pastry shaped cross on top of the bun well before the mention of icing topping the bun.

    Thanks for adding that.

    Many blessings to you during Holy Week!

    1. I knew this, I say that with amazement because there's so much I've learnt after receiving 13 years of catholic education im regards to the culture of faith that was never explained when I was in school. We still get Easter egg bread every Easter, can't help but remember eating it way back when. Thanks for sharing Jen!

    2. For those who aren't familiar with the Italian Easter bread, it's a special treat and baked in the shape of a wreath symbolizing the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ, the 3 braided pieces of dough represent the Holy Trinity. Adding an egg to the bread represents rebirth, as well as the resurrection.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to share the history with us, Jen! This is such an interesting post!

    I'll add a link to this post to the bottom of the recipe post! =)

  4. Interesting, Jen. I liked how Kathy Cutler in her "Festive Bread Book" gave 5 suggestions for the cross:

    1. Apply Confectioners' Icing on buns after baking.
    2. With scissors, snip cross pattern on top of shaped buns before rising.
    3. Apply flour-and-water paste cross after rising but before baking.
    4. Make cross by using uncooked dough, and place on risen bun.
    5. Make a cross on risen dough out of candied peel.

    I think we could write a few more posts just on Hot Cross Buns. Very interesting history!

  5. As I went through Internet sites and cookbooks, I was struck how many people think that Hot Cross buns are now a sweet roll served for Easter morning! Now how did this tradition corrupt to this? I thought that a penitential period that happens before Easter is unheard of in the secular world, so it just is lumped with "Easter traditions". What do you think?

  6. I think you're right, Jenn.

    It's sad that culture/society has, in its efforts to make things like this more accessible, lost the meaning and real reason behind the very thing they offer. Everything is associated with the Feast (thinking of how this happens with Advent/Christmas - but even associating with the Feast has now become associating with Santa Claus or an Easter Bunny rather than the Incarnation or the Resurrection) - penitential seasons are not within the mainstream vocabulary any more...and certainly not on their calendar. So, Hot Cross Buns, once a Good Friday staple, are now a sweet roll for Easter morning. :(

  7. Growing up, we always had them on Easter (Protestant), but since my conversion, we have them on Good Friday.

    I think my mother always just put the icing, but I use a serrated bread knife to cut a cross in the top before I stick them in the oven--and then add icing. It isn't a *lot* of icing, and while I agree that it is certainly more penitential to have it without, it does seem somewhat penitential for a dessert. We usually end up with guests at our home for Good Friday (we live near the Italian parish that does the procession with the corpus through the streets after their traditional living stations--and there is usually someone we know coming from a bit of a distance to participate), and I tend to serve this as "dessert" for the modest larger meal.

    Anyway, I'm sure you are right that the icing is a modern addition, but I guess that considering our society usually has desserts laden with sugar, it still seems in keeping with the spirit of the day to serve something with just that hint of icing to guests, ime.

    Though, perhaps I am more stingy with my icing, lol! I also use whole grain flour which makes them a bit less indulgent (but only a bit--we like the whole wheat!).

  8. I would really like to find out for homework what the cross on the hot cross bun means i cant find it any where on the internet and i have heard lots of different meanings

  9. I have been looking for a good Hot Cross Buns recipe. Can't wait to try this one!!!

  10. Hot Cross Buns were not always associated with Christianity. Their origins lie in pagan traditions of ancient cultures, with the cross representing the four quarters of the moon. Eventually the Christian church adopted the buns and re-interpreted the icing cross. Protestant England attempted to ban the sale of the buns by bakers but they were too popular, and instead Elizabeth I passed a law permitting bakeries to sell them, but only at Easter and Christmas.

  11. I was told as a young girl that the hot cross bun was used in times of heavy Christian persecuttion, the cross was a way a christians communicating that they were Christians. I do not find this anywhere in the history of the hot cross bun.

  12. The little cross piped on top of modern hot cross buns with pastry is a fairly recent development. Some bakers in the past used a piece of equipment called a 'bun docker' to mark the buns. You can see illustrations of how this was done at this webpage -

  13. I alway's was taught that Lent was over after Jesus was taken from he cross and layen in the tomb, and that broke the pentance of Easter. there for the frosting may be eaten

  14. There is actually a very old tradition of eating sweetened dishes during Lent.The old medieval fasting regulations ( see forbade the use of meat, eggs, cheese and dairy products, wine, and olive oil for the whole of Lent. Sweetened dishes, or other means of fortifying the foods that remained, seems to be common since this time was also a period of heavey farm labor (plowing and the like) Honey and sugar could be eaten, and sweet dishes (sweetened breads, fruit pies made with honey) provided needed calories to get the strength to do one's job. The more so on Good Friday, when bread might be the only thing eaten. So the icing, though comparatively modern, is not contradictory to the tradition

  15. There are a lot of interesting replies here. Probably some truth in all and of course traditions do speak louder than words.

  16. In my family, hot cross buns were for Holy Thursday. They represented the institution of the Holy Eucheist at the Last Supper on that day.