What do you get when you pour boiling water down a rabbit hole? Hot, cross bunnies, of course.
The sweet bread buns that are the inspiration for this silly joke have long been associated with Easter, a symbol of Good Friday — the cross on the top of the buns signifying the crucifixion of Christ. However, according to some scholars, the origins of the buns actually lie in pagan traditions of ancient cultures — the cross representing, instead, the sun wheel, and the division of the bun into four quarters representing the phases of the moon.
In Sue Ellen Thompson’s third edition of the book “Holiday Symbols and Customs” she explains “pagans worshiped the goddess Eostre (after whom Easter was named) by serving tiny cakes, often decorated with a cross, at their annual spring festival. When archaeologist 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.”
Though there is some controversy, the mark is certainly of ancient origin. The Oxford Companion to Food explains the mark is connected with religious offerings of bread, which replaced earlier offerings of blood. For example, the Egyptians offered small round cakes, marked with a representation of the horns of an ox, to the goddess of the moon.
Superstitions regarding bread baked on Good Friday date back to a very early period. In England, particularly, people believed that bread baked on this day could be hardened in the oven and kept for years to protect the house from fire. Sailors often took it on their voyages to prevent shipwreck. Farmers buried a Good Friday loaf in corn to protect it from vermin such as rats, mice and weevils.
The Christian church adopted the buns and re-interpreted the icing cross and gave them out during early missionizing efforts. In fact, in 1361, a monk named Father Thomas Rockcliffe began a tradition of giving the spiced, currant-laced buns to the poor of St. Albans on Good Friday.
According to cookery writer Elizabeth David, Protestant monarchs in 16th century England saw the buns as a dangerous hold-over of Catholic belief because they were said to be baked from the same dough recipe used in making the communion wafer.
For this reason, along with the pagan associations, the Protestant monarchy attempted to ban the sale of hot cross buns.
However, their popularity trumped such a drastic course of action. Instead, Queen Elizabeth I “converted” the buns to Christianity by passing a law permitting bakeries to sell them, but only at Easter and Christmas and for use at funerals as is recorded in the following decree, issued in 1592, the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth I, by the London Clerk of the Markets:
“That no bakers, etcetera, at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the Queen’s subject any spice cakes, buns, biscuits, or other spice bread (being bread out of size and not by law allowed) except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain or forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor…”
However, in his book, “An A-Z of Food & Drink,” John Ay explains the first intimation of a cross appearing on a bun, in specific remembrance of Christ’s cross is not found until Poor Robin’s Almanac of 1733.
“Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns’ (a version of the once familiar street-cry, ‘One-a-penny, two-a penny, hot cross buns’).”
Many customs, traditions, superstitions and claims of healing and protection from evil are still associated with the buns. Nowadays, in England and beyond, hot cross buns are served at breakfast on Good Friday morning.
Many people hang a hot cross bun in the house to garner protection from bad luck in the coming year.
These historic buns are round and made from a rich yeast dough containing flour, milk, sugar, butter, eggs, currants and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. As with any baked-good, these buns are best made from scratch and served straight out of the oven with generous dabs of sweet-cream butter. Try out the recipe below and share this sweet, historical treat with your friends and neighbors. Perhaps you will dish out a bite of good luck.