Hot-cross Buns – An Easter Tradition (1825)

Maundy Tuesday and Christmas-day are the only two close holidays now observed throughout London, by the general shutting up of shops, and the opening of all the churches. The dawn is awakened by a cry in the streets of

“Hot-cross-buns ; one-a-penny buns, two-a-penny buns; one-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross-buns!”

This proceeds from some little “peep-o’-day boy,” willing to take the ” top of the morning” before the rest of his compeers. He carries his covered buns in a basket hanging on one arm, while his other hand is straightened like an open door, at the side of his mouth, to let forth his childish voice, and he ” pipes and trebles ont the sound” to the extremity of his lungs. Scarcely has he departed before others come; “another and another still succeeds,” and at last the whole street is in one “common cry of bum.” Old men and young men, young women and old women, big children and little children, are engaged in this occupation, and “some cry now who never cried before.”

The bun-venders who eclipse the rest in voice and activity, are young women who drive fruit-barrows—barrows, by the bye, are no more, but of them by and bye. A couple of these ex-barrow-women trip along, carrying a wicker clothes-basket between them, in which the ” hot-crossbuns” are covered, first by a clean flannel or green baize, and outwardly by a clean white cloth, which coverings are slowly and partially removed, for fear of letting the buns cool, when a customer stops to buy, or calls them to the door.

They continue their lengthened cry, with a volume of concerted sound, unequalled by other rivals in the ephemeral Good Friday trade. These scenes and sounds continue till church-time, and resume in the afternoon. It partially commences on the evening before Good Friday, but with little success.

Some thirty or forty years ago pastrycooks and bakers vied with each other for excellence in making hot-cross-buns; the demand, has decreased, and so has the quality of the buns. But the great place of attraction for bun-eaters at that time was Chelsea; for there were the two “royal bun-houses.”

Before and along the whole length of the long front of each, stood a flat-roofed, neat wooden portico or piazza of the width of the foot-path, beneath which shelter “from summer’s heat and winter’s cold,” crowds of persons assembled to scramble forachnnce of purchasing “royal hot cross Chelsea buns,” within a reasonable time; and several hundreds of square black tins, with dozens of hot buns on each tin, were disposed of in every hour from a little after six in the morning, till after the same period in the evening of Good Friday.

Those who knew what was good, better than new comers, gave the preference to the “old original royal bun-house,” which had been a 6un-house “ever since it was a house,” and at which “the king himself once hopped” and who could say as much for the other. This was the conclusive tale at the door, and from within the doors, of the ” old original bun-house.1

Alas! and alack there is that house now ,- and there is the house that was opened as its rival; but where are ye who contributed to their renown and custom, among the apprentices and journeymen, and the little comfortable tradesmen of the metropolis, and their wives and children—where are ye? With ye hath the fame of” Chelsea-buns” departed, and the “royal bun-houses” are little more distinguished than the humble graves wherein ye rest.

Formerly “hot-cross-buns “were commonly eaten in London by families at breakfast, and some families still retain the usance. They are of the usual form of buns; though they are distinguished from them inwardly by a sweeter taste, and the flavourof all-spice, and outwardly by the mark or sign of the cross. The “hot-cr<m-bun” is the most popular symbol of the Roman catholic religion in England that the reformation has left.

Of the use of the cross, as a mark or sign in papal worship and devotion, most readers are aware; for it has been insisted on by Roman catholic writers from the days of Constantine to Alban Butler himself, who giving example of its great virtue on Good Friday, says, ” to add one more instance, out of many, St. Teresa assures us, in her own life, that one day the devil, by a phantom, appeared to sit on the letters of her book, to disturb her at her devotions; but she drove him away thriee by the sign of the cross, and at last sprinkled the book with holy water; after which he returned no more.”* In the houses of some ignorant people, a Good Friday bun is still kept” for luck,” and sometimes there hangs from the ceiling a hard biscuit-like cake of open cross-work, baked on a Good Friday, to remain there till displaced on the next Good Friday by one of similar make; and of this the editor of the Every-Day Book has heard affirmed, that it preserves the house from fire;” “no fire ever happened in a house that had one.”

This undoubtedly is a relic of the old superstition; as is also a vulgar notion in the west of England, that the straight stripe down the shoulders of the ass, intersected by the long one from the neck to the tail, is a cross of honour conferred upon him by Christ, and that before Christ rode upon the ass, that animal was not so distinguished.

Hot-cross-buns are the ecclesiastical Eulogier, or consecrated loaves, bestowed in the church as alms, and to those who from any impediment could not receive the host. They are made from the dough from whence the host itself is taken, and are given by the priest to the people after mass, just before the congregation is dismissed, and are kissed before they are eaten. They are marked with the cross as our Good Friday buns are.

Winckelman relates this remarkable fact, that at Herculaneum were found two entire loaves of the same size, a palm and a half, or five inches in diameter. They were marked by a cross, within which were four other lirres; and so the bread of the Greeks was marked from the earliest periods. Sometimes it had only four lines, and then it was called quadra. This bread had rarely any other mark than a cross, which was on purpose to divide and break it more easily.

Source: The every-day book or the Guide To The Year (1825)

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