Friday, 6 April 2012

Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!

One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!
If your daughters do not like them
Give them to your sons;
But if you haven't any of these pretty little elves
You cannot do better than eat them yourselves.

This is the old nursery rhyme, and Good Friday is traditionally associated with Hot Cross buns. I like to slit mine open, place a generous amount of Flora inside and close them up (in the old days butter, but I have to be more health conscious) , put them on a tray in the oven, gas mark 4, for about 10 minutes. Out they come, hot, spice and fruity and with melted hot butter within. Scrumptious!

But where did Hot Cross buns originate from?

One old book, from 1939, has this to say about the origins of Hot Cross Buns:

"On the spring equinox the Babylonians served little cakes marked with the Bull's own sign-the same cakes, to mark the same season, that we serve today--except that we call them hot cross buns by mistake."(1)

A more modern book on foods states that:

"hot cross buns began their life in ancient Egypt as bread marked with horns for fertility." (2)

It turns out that they are, in fact, quoting a book from 1980 as their source for this, and that simply asserts, rather than giving any evidence.

There was a tendency, which we can trace in Frazer's Golden Bough as an prime example of the genre, to see all customs as relics of ancient pagan customs. This looks at common elements, like here the eating of bread, and lumps them all together, regardless of differences, or of charting the progression through time. But it looks as if Hot Cross Buns did not originate in the Middle East, simply because the historical record does not find a trace within Christianity until the 18th century, when they emerge, suddenly there. It looks very much as if there is no trace, because there is no connection - 1700 years of silence, then  suddenly present - is much more likely because they were invented in the 18th century, not because there was a secret hidden pagan tradition of eating hot cross buns on Good Friday, which was so secret, it has left no trace in any documents at all!

But we find the same pattern with the Victorian Christmas, which is a time of invention, and customs are created, and within a generation, become established as part of custom since time immemorial. Our present Christmas celebrations is largely a Victorian invention, although traces of it do go back earlier - and leave their mark in the historical record. The Christmas crib, for example, was an invention of Francis of Assisi, a visual aid for a largely illiterate common people.

Rosen's Guide to the Religions of America places the custom in England, as an outcome of the "Mass of the Presanctified", a tradition which is still in place today in Roman Catholic Churches and some Anglican Churches (such as St Brelade), and links it to that:

Good Friday --This day commemorates the Crucifixion, which is retold during services from the Gospel according to St. John. A feature in Roman Catholic churches is the Mass of the Presanctified: there is no Consecration, the Host having been consecrated the previous day. The eating of hot cross buns on this day is said to have started in England. (4)

The Yearbook of Festivals traces this back to the Middle Ages, but notes that while bread - connected with the mass and the holy day - had special qualities, we don't find bread marked and eaten as hot cross buns until later:

Good Friday has its fair share of superstitions. Bread baked on this day was considered a curative, especially for children. The custom of eating hot-cross buns, however, is not attested before the eighteenth century, where Poor Robin's Almanac mentions it as a street cry of bakers:

Good Friday comes this Month, the old Woman runs
With one or two a Penny, hot cross Bunns,
Whose Virtue is, if you believe what's said,
They'll not grow mouldy like the common Bread. [Poor Robin ( 1733)]

For Good Friday, hot buns marked with a cross for breakfast . . . These buns will keep for ever without becoming mouldy, by virtue of the holy sign impressed upon them . . . in the province of Herefordshire a pious woman annually makes two upon this day, the crumbs of which are a sovereign remedy for diarrhea Southey, Letters from England, XX

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes notes how this moved from the bakers - eager to sell their buns - to the nursery, where it became a general chant, and a game:

Hence it became a calendar folk-chant, customarily sung by children on Good Friday, when the hot cross buns are eaten for breakfast. The song is now remembered in the nursery throughout the year, and often accompanies the game in which the hands are placed flat in a pile, and the lowest removed and placed on the top, and so on.

The Yearbook of English festivals (7) surmises that the idea of baking having special properties may have its origins in a folk-legend about Jesus.

In contrast to the gloomy conviction that to wash on Good Friday is unlucky, is the widespread belief that to bake is good. This goes back to the legend that when on the way to Golgotha, Christ stopped to rest at the cottage of a woman who was washing. Not wishing to be seen with a common malefactor, the woman threw suds at Jesus and ordered him to leave. He shouldered his cross again and started on his way. He soon came to a cottage where a woman was baking. She offered him a bench to sit on, bread to eat and water to drink. From then on, people have said that women who wash on Good Friday are cursed, but those who bake are blessed.

Perhaps this folk belief accounts for the superstition that Good Friday cross buns possess rare virtues. They will keep all year without growing moldy, and a bit of the loaf, grated and mixed with water, brandy or milk, cures diarrhea and other ailments! In some humble Devonshire and Worcestershire cottages a Good Friday bun hangs from the smoke-stained rafters, since people think the holy bread protects sailors from shipwreck, clothes from moths and corn from mice! In olden days London streets were filled with the cries of the Good Friday bun vendors, who lured the last penny from pockets of the unwary, with reminders, such as:

One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns.
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons;
But if you have none of these merry little elves,
Then you may keep them all for yourselves.

Folk legends have a way of finding their way into the public consciousness. It is, after all, an apocryphal tale that presents us with three wise men, and their names; they are not given in Matthew's gospel which just speaks of Magi from the East.

But the actual mutation to Hot Cross buns seems later. As Ronald Hutton notes: " Its first appearance is in the early eighteenth century, and no such treats relieved the dietary gloom of the pre-Reformation Lent."(8). He expands on the notion of special bread, and how that became marked with a cross - curiously, in Protestant England, rather than Catholic England:

During the nineteenth century, across virtually the whole of England and in parts of Wales, folklorists discovered the superstition that bread, buns, or biscuits baked upon this day had especially beneficial powers. They were generally believed never to go mouldy and to be capable of curing diseases, especially intestinal disorders, if eaten. If hung in a house, they were thought to protect it against misfortune. Not merely the day of manufacture was important, however, for like a pre-Reformation host they had to be marked with the sign of the cross.

The faith in them crossed a surprising number of confessional boundaries: thus a lady in the Cambridgeshire fenland village of Brandon Creek manifested it to the full although she was a strict primitive Methodist. Her Good Friday bread was kept in a tin to bring good luck to her family during the following year. Only after a new one had replaced it was the twelve-month-old loaf moistened, rebaked, and eaten on Easter Day by the whole household. The person given the cross was considered especially blessed, and the end slice was thrown into the river Ouse to protect the neighbourhood from floods. Only in Northamptonshire, to illustrate the twists which popular belief was capable of taking, was the tradition reversed, and baking upon Good Friday regarded as unlucky.

That the medieval veneration of the consecrated bread of the mass should have left a profound impact upon the popular imagination is not surprising. That the home-made bread stamped with the cross should be especially associated with Good Friday does, however, call out for some particular explanation, and the one most apparent is surely that the host was most obviously venerated upon this day, in the rite of the sepulchre. By the nineteenth century, these special pieces of bread were known very widely by the name of Hot Cross Buns, and they survived as the traditional Good Friday morning or midday dish in areas where their magical qualities had been forgotten, and they had become commercialized. This happened earliest, naturally enough, in London, where the street vendors' cry "One a-penny, two a-penny Hot Cross Buns" was familiar by 1733.

But there are other Good Friday customs which are also interesting, which are revealed in the Yearbook of English Festivals:

Bees should be shifted on Good Friday and no other day, according to farmers of Devonshire, Herefordshire and Cornwall; while in Dorsetshire, Worcestershire, Norfolk and some other places, peas, potatoes and beans planted on Good Friday will prosper. West Riding Yorkshire farmers hotly disagree, however, claiming that soil should never be touched on this day!

Good Friday is important in rural weather lore, for,

If it rain on Good Friday or Easter Day,
Twill be a good year of grass but a sorry year of hay.

There is, alas, no mention of the custom of having Conger Soup for the Lent Lunch at St Brelade's Parish Hall, which is a pity. I went there this year, enjoyed the bread and cheese, and then the rich fishy aroma as the soup came to my table. It was singularly delicious, and I enjoyed ever mouthful, until at last my bowl was empty. Like Hot Cross Buns, traditions are invented, but that doesn't make them any less memorable or enjoyable.

(1) Stars and Men. Margaret L. Ionides Stephen A. Ionides, 1939
(2)  Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction. Sarah Sceats, 2000.
(3) Consuming Passions: the Anthropology of Eating, Peter Farb and George Armelagos,  (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980
(4) A Guide to the Religions of America. Leo Rosten, 1955
(5) The Oxford Companion to the Year. Bonnie Blackburn, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, 1999
(6) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.Peter Opie, Iona Opie, 1997
(7) Yearbook of English Festivals. Dorothy Gladys Spicer, 1954
(8) The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400-1700. Ronald Hutton, 1994
(9) The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton,

1 comment:

Alane Wallace said...

I want some conger soup!