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One ha’penny, two ha’penny!

I suffer from a common affliction called earworm. At any given moment, there might be two or three musical tunes on permanent rotation in my head. They’re not all playing at once, mind you. When one earworm fades or shows weakness, the next earworm asserts itself and assumes control. There are legions of these songs waiting in the queue.

Invariably, it’s the Hot Cross Buns song that comes on strong at this time of year. It’s a pernicious one because of its melodic simplicity. The words are few and they don’t carry much meaning. They cling to the melody like a raisin in the crust.

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One ha'penny, two ha'penny! Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, pray give them to your sons
Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!

Blame Miss Nuttall

It was Miss Nuttall who taught me the song when I was eight years old. She wore her dark red hair in a bun, with no white cross. She always seemed tired, her face impassive. There was a smile on her face but not a lot of heart in it.

She sat at the piano at the head of the class and had us all singing along. We sang in the round, half the class one verse ahead of the other, like the song that never ends. A simple melody, a simple lyric and it haunts me to this day. I wonder if she knew this would happen to students nearly 58 years later!

Hot cross buns, in those days, were uninspiring, mostly fluff and flecked with a few raisins and mixed peel that tasted like petrochemicals. I liked them well enough toasted or with thick slabs of butter.

Why a song about Hot Cross Buns?

But why write a song about these unremarkable buns that were no more interesting than dinner rolls?

I was at an Easter Sunday brunch; it must have been in my 20s. Someone placed a pan of hot cross buns in the middle of the table. They were just out of the oven. A swarm of greedy hands was instantly drawn to them, tearing at the buns. They’d been brushed with a thin vanilla syrup that was hot to the touch. They exuded a delicious spice perfume, pillows of shiny golden brown with the white cross melted into the crust. Raisins, currants, candied peel and apricots studded the soft buttery crumb.

Hot Cross Buns are sweetened, but it’s a subtle sweetness that doesn’t overpower the spice or fruit. The crossing paste is applied to the buns just before going into the oven. It becomes integrated into the bun itself. 

A quick brush of vanilla syrup is applied just as they’re out of the oven. It gives them a lustrous appearance, contributes to the balanced sweetness, and helps extend the buns’ shelf life.

You’d know what the fuss was about if these were the norm instead of the fluffy ones posing as hot cross buns! They were otherworldly!

Pagan origins

Eostre, pagan goddess of dawn and spring, as depicted in a 19th C illustration.

Hot Cross Buns were traditionally eaten in the Christian world on Good Friday after the end of Lent. But earlier mentions of buns made with crosses are found in pagan times when worshippers honoured the goddess of dawn and spring, a deity called Eostre. Note the similarity with modern-day Easter.

The cross found on the pagan buns represented the four phases of the moon and were offered to Eostre as part of the ritual. Early Christianity tried to incorporate aspects of paganism, including the crosses on the buns, which were changed to symbolize the sign of the cross and the crucifixion1.

These are excellent products in the modern baker’s repertoire. In last year’s Coupe de Monde, the annual olympiad of baking, they were added as a random product for the international competitors to bake.

Give them to somebody, the song says, if not your daughters, then make sure your sons get them! Someone needs hot cross buns in their lives!


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  1. Hot Cross buns also figure in superstitions, such as the ability to bring good luck and ward off sickness. Read this fun article for more information on superstitions

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