Hot cross buns were once an Easter treat, toasted and buttered or enjoyed cold, but now people are eating them in large numbers all year round. But what's their significance?

We seem to eat a lot of hot cross buns these days.

Tesco, Britain's largest food retailer, will already have sold 70 million of them by the end of the Easter weekend. But it seems they are no longer limited to that particular Christian festival.

The supermarket giant has nine varieties of hot cross bun, including toffee, orange and cranberry, and apple and cinnamon. Of its nine varieties, three are on sale all year round.

Another supermarket chain, Waitrose, restricts itself to a mere six varieties. These include Belgian chocolate and date and cranberry. Waitrose says its hot cross bun sales are up 28 percent on last year. But what is the significance of hot cross buns?

The Church of England likes to set the distinctive baked goods, perhaps not unsurprisingly in a Christian context. They are historically eaten on Good Friday, and the symbolism is evident.

“You have got the bread, as per the communion, you have got the spices that represent the spices Jesus was wrapped in in the tomb, and you have got the cross. They are fairly full of Christian symbolism,” says Steve Jenkins, Church of England spokesman.

And yet the precise role of hot cross buns in Christianity and even their provenance seems to be a little hazy.

Monk theories

Google the term and you'll find a plethora of theories — that they go back to Roman times, that they are a Saxon thing, and even that they are a pagan rather than Christian item.

You will very often see a suggestion that a 12th Century monk first incised a cross on a bun. Yet another recent theory tied the tradition of the buns to a monk in 14th Century St Albans.

Still further references tie them only into the Easter tradition from the Elizabethan era. It is suggested that they were viewed with suspicion by some Protestants and that legal moves were made to restrict their consumption to Easter and some other festival periods.

But the Oxford English Dictionary's first reference to hot cross buns is only from 1733. It's in the form of the ditty: “Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.”

The fact that the words of the famous song appear in this reference does rather suggest that the term may have been around a while before that, but any history of the bun wanders into conjecture, says food historian Ivan Day, who runs the Historic Food website.

“The trouble with any folk food, any traditional food, is that no-one tended to write about them in the very early period.

No Recipes

“`The street cry ‘hot cross buns' seems to be quite old.

“The buns were made in London during the 18th Century. But when you start looking for records or recipes earlier than that, you hit nothing.”

There is a piece of Roman sculpture with a loaf marked with a cross, but that it is probably just to make it breakable into four, says Mr Day. There was a wave of efforts by antiquarians in Victorian times to look into the story of the hot cross bun but their sources are not clear.

These people talk about hot cross buns being eaten for breakfast in London. Unlike contemporary buns, where the cross is piped lines of pastry, the original cross was cut into the bun.

Some of the earlier traditions included keeping bread baked on Good Friday to grate and use as a medicine in later years. It was believed that the buns would never go mouldy and they were sometimes nailed up in the house as a good luck charm.

Other old Easter customs like the tanzy, a bitter herb-flavoured cake, and a fig porridge have died out. “In the hot cross bun, you do have a surviving fossil of these customs,'' says Mr Day. It cannot be proven, but the provenance of the buns may be more connected to Jewish Passover — with its sharing of unleavened bread as part of wider ritual — than Roman, Saxon, or pagan customs.

It is not even clear when the buns are supposed to be eaten. The Church of England associates them with Good Friday, that day when the symbolism of the cross is all important. But you can find some references to them being eaten during Lent.

This seems odd, as something containing spices and butter does not seem to sit well with the dietary restrictions of that period. And that was before somebody thought of adding Belgian chocolate. — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate

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