Easter just wouldn’t be Easter without hot cross buns. These sweet, spiced buns were also popular throughout the Georgian era, known both as cross buns as well as hot cross buns, and traditionally eaten on Good Friday. The well-known song relating to them has its origins in the eighteenth-century.
Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons.
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!
This started out as a London street cry, used by the sellers of the buns. The Oxford English Dictionary references a street cry dating to 1733, printed in Poor Robin’s Almanack:
Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs,
With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.
So, when did the street cry become a ditty? Wikipedia (not always the most reliable, we know!) dates the earliest recorded version of the rhyme to its appearance in The Christmas Box, published in London, 1798. However, we have found mention of a ‘catch’ (a round song; two or more voices singing the same song but beginning at different times) dating from 1767 and printed in the London Chronicle newspaper (2-4 June 1767).
A Catch that won the Prize at the Boarded Bagnio:
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross-buns;
If you’ve no daughters, give them to your sons;
And if you’ve no kind of pretty little elves,
Why then good faith, e’en eat them all yourselves.
One a penny, two a penny, &c.
(Da capo is an Italian term meaning to repeat from the beginning. The Boarded Bagnio was located in Banister’s Alley, St Giles.)
We’re not sure what exactly was going on at the Boarded Bagnio to merit the hot cross bun rhyme winning a prize, but this version of the popular ditty predates its appearance in The Christmas Box by over three decades and is the earliest reference to it that we can find. Is this the origin of the song?
What of the origins of the buns themselves? One writer, in 1777, refers to the custom in Greece to make presents of coloured eggs, and cakes of Easter bread. He continues:
Probably the Cross Buns made at present on Good Friday have been derived from these or such like Cakes of Easter Bread. The Country People in the North make with a knife many little Cross Marks on their Cakes, before they put them into the Oven, &c. – I have no doubt but that this too, trifling as the Remark may appear, is a Relique of Popery. Thus also persons, who cannot write, instead of signing their Names, are bid to make their Mark, which is generally done in the form of a Cross.
We’ve searched for an authentic recipe for the cross buns of the era, but the closest we have found is this from the Morning Chronicle, 23 April 1791:
GOOD FRIDAY ADVERTISEMENTS
A person, well known at Leicester, lately took this mode of informing the public, ‘that his Buns, made of the best Flour, and the genuine spices of the East, would be ready for delivery by six in the morning’. After desiring them to be aware of imposters, he concluded as follows:
GOOD FRIDAY approaches, and hard have I strove,
My highest respect for the Public to prove;
And to make my commodity worth approbation,
Collected the sweets of each spice-breathing nation.
What tho’ some base Gingerbread Weavers, for fun,
In their ribaldry, call me a Cake and a Bun;
In the making of Buns, there’s no rival I fear,
I’ve in mine, no mix’d Butter, nor rot-gut Small Beer –
But there’s everything genuine! Look at their size,
For they’ll melt in your mouth, and swell proud to your eyes.
And so, while I exist, you shall never lay fault on
Your Cross-bun Distributer, fam’d EDIS WATTON.
There was a tradition, probably harking back to the religious connotations with the buns, that stale and mouldy cross buns would cure many childhood ailments. Luckily the child does not seem to have been expected to eat the buns – sometimes several years old – but instead they would be bandaged to their body.
Sources not referenced in the text:
Observations on popular antiquities: including the whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares, with addenda to every chapter of that work: as also, an appendix, containing such articles on the subject, as have been omitted by that author. By John Brand, A. B. Of Lincoln College, Oxford. 1777