One ha’ Penny, Two ha’ Penny – the folklore of hot cross buns

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATraditionally lent, the forty day period building up to Easter, has been a  time of fasting or, more recently, of holding back on sweetmeats.  Some treats do, however, slip through the lenten net.  In Malta there is kwarezimal, a delicious hard cake made with chopped nuts, honey and rose water.  It is available from carnival right up to Easter. Similar biscuits are available in Italy, called Quaresimali.

My favourite, though, is the hot cross bun, now available and eaten in Britain and Australia all year round. Supermarkets sell endless variations of the treat, some embellished with Belgian chocolate, orange and cranberry and even toffee. The original Holy Week treat, though, is still a humble concoction, of dough, cinnamon, nutmeg and currants.

Hot Cross Buns are loaded with Christian symbolism.  The dough represents the bread eaten during the last supper. The yeast symbolises Christ’s rising from the dead. The spices remind us of the perfumed unguents Jesus was anointed with in preparation for his burial. The buns, as everyone knows, are topped with a cross, the most potent symbol of Good Friday.

The origins of the hot cross bun is unclear and probably predates Christianity.  Breads from Anglo-Saxon rituals, Roman festivals and Jewish Passover have all been touted as the fore-runners of the hot cross bun. By Victorian times they were very popular, although pictures of the confection from this time show it having a cross cut into it rather than piped on in marzipan.  It’s interesting to see that it survived into our post-pagan times when other Good Friday and Easter dishes like the tansy and fig porridge have died out.

There is a lot of folklore associated with hot cross buns.  If baked on Good Friday they were said to keep fresh indefinitely. Housewives would often keep one aside, believing it had medicinal properties. Hanging a hot cross bun above an oven ensured there would be no burnt loaves for a year and no accidental fires in the kitchen.

Sailors would often take a hot cross bun to sea with them. It was believed to ward off shipwrecks. A touching legend about the hot cross bun comes from Bow, in London.  A widow baked a hot cross bun for her son, who was due back home from sea by Good Friday.  Sadly, the youngster was reported missing, presumed drowned.  His mother, though, never gave up hope that he would come back. home She hung the bun in a fishing net above the oven and, every year, added another one to the collection.

The widow died without ever seeing her son again.  A pub, The Widow’s Son, was built on the spot where her little cottage once stood.  It opened in 1848.  The widow’s collection of hot cross buns was never thrown out. It keeps growing still.  Every year  on Good Friday a sailor from the Royal Navy adds another one to it in memory of the loving mother, and all the men who lost their lives at sea.

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Put it in thar net, matey!

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons
One ha’ penny,
Two ha’ penny,
Hot Cross Buns!

You might also like:

Hosanna, Heysanna – legends about Palm Sunday

Pop in a Pancake – Pancake Day Traditions

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