A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Four


Hot cross buns

Easter is coming, a period which marks the lows and highs of the Christian year. For those of us who do not practise the faith, one of the gastronomic pleasures of the festival is the opportunity to eat hot cross buns. The rhyme under our spotlight is fairly simple and goes like this, “Hot cross buns!/ Hot cross buns!/ one a penny, two a penny/ Hot cross buns!/ If you have no daughters/ give them to your sons/ one a penny,  two a penny/ Hot cross buns!

The rhyme was first published in the Christmas Box in 1798 but, almost certainly, its origins come from the cries of street vendors. In the days before supermarkets and shops, goods were often hawked on the streets. The only way for the trader to make the potential buying public aware of their goods was to shout out, much in the way that a market stallholder will in trying to drum up custom. The poem, The Street Cries of London from 1680, illustrates the practice, “Hark! How the cries in every street/ make lanes and alleys ring/ with their goods and ware, both nice and rare/ all in a pleasant lofty strain”.

Each trader would have their own route and had their own distinctive cries and rhymes to extol the virtues of their particular merchandise. The hot cross vendor was obviously a seasonal phenomenon but there is little doubt that they would have sold their wares on the street. This is confirmed by a rhyme found in Poor Robin’s Almanack for 1733 which runs as follows, “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs/ with one or two a penny hot cross buns”.  It would be a surprise if the old woman had not advertised her wares vocally. Presumably, the two a penny buns were smaller or less tasty than the penny ones.

Hot cross buns are spiced, sweet buns made with currants or raisins and a pastry cross atop. The cross is supposed to represent the crucifixion of Jesus. It is clear, though, that originally the consumption of hot cross buns was not restricted to the Easter festival.  In 1592 the Lord Clerk of Markets issued a decree forbidding the sale of hot cross buns and other spiced breads on all occasions other than at funerals, on Good Friday and on Christmas Day. Anyone who broke this embargo would have their goods seized and they would be distributed to the poor. Further attempts were made during the reign of James 1st to suppress their sale. The authorities, it would seem, were trying to enforce the association of the popular and tasty bun with the festival of Easter.

There are many superstitions about hot cross buns in English folklore. Buns baked and served on Good Friday, according to one, will not spoil or grow mouldy during the next year. Buns were kept for medicinal purposes and giving a piece to someone who was ill would speed their recovery. If a hot cross bun was taken to sea it was supposed to protect you against shipwreck. If that failed, I suppose you could hollow out the middle and use it as a life belt. Another old wives’ tale has the bun as a form of household insurance. If you hung it in the window it would protect you against fires, with the added bonus of ensuring that your bread would turn out perfectly. It was recommended that you changed the bun annually.

And finally, some Australians introduced us to the No cross bun in 2014, a bun which doesn’t have a cross on it – they are, after all a literal race. What it does have, though, is a smiley face. There’s no accounting for taste.


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