Why do hot cross buns have crosses on them and what's their link to Easter?

Homemade Easter traditional hot cross buns in ceramic dish with blossom flowers and chocolate candy eggs on white marble table. Flat lay, space. Easter holiday baking and treats. (Photo by: Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Hot cross buns at Easter have long been tradition in the UK. (Getty Images)

"Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!"

Hot cross buns have been flying off the shelves in the run-up to Easter. So popular are the sticky, sweet baked treats that an estimated 20 million packs are sold annually in the UK, and they are available all-year round in most major supermarkets.

These spiced buns, usually made with enriched dough flavoured with fruit like raisins and oranges, as well as spices like cinnamon, are characterised by white crosses baked onto their glossy tops.

The crosses, usually made with a paste of flour and water, are piped onto the buns before baking. They have long been associated with the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on, according to the Bible, and are strongly linked to Good Friday and Easter.

Moving away from tradition always stirs controversy, and things were no different for Iceland supermarket, which recently faced backlash for replacing the cross on some of its hot cross buns with a tick instead.

The retailer decided to trial sales of the bun after it received feedback that a fifth of customers would like to see a version of the buns with a tick instead of a cross. Traditional hot cross buns are still available at Iceland stores across the country.

Easter hot cross buns. Traditional dish. Easter dessert. British dessert. Still life of food�
The cross on hot cross buns hold religious significance. (Getty Images)

Some saw the move away from crosses as offensive towards Christians. But have hot cross buns always had a cross on them, and how did they come about?

The tradition of eating hot cross buns as we know them dates back to the 18th century, according to English Heritage. It has been suggested that the St Alban’s Bun, a cake local to St Alban’s, was the "ancient prototype" for the hot cross bun.

These buns are flavoured with "grains of paradise", sometimes known as Meleguata pepper and closely related to cardamom, and a cross was slashed into the dough rather than piped on.

Some historians say that bakers who marked their loaves with crosses believed it would ensure the bread rose successfully and would ward off evil spirits.

Later, it was believed that hanging loaves and buns marked with crosses that were baked on Good Friday would provide protection against evil spirits. These miraculous loaves were also believed to never mould and would last all year long until the next Good Friday came along, when they would be replaced.

The hot cross bun’s links to religion have always been quite clear - even if they haven’t always been welcome. Professor Rebecca Earle, food historian at the University of Warwick, tells Yahoo UK: "I don’t think there’s any ambiguity about hot cross buns being associated with Good Friday and therefore, Easter.

Pub employee Margaret Utteridge, 74, who has worked at The Bell Inn, High Road, Horndon-on-the Hill, Essex since 1984, hangs a hot cross bun from a beam which has been a tradition at the inn since 1906. (Photo by Nick Ansell/PA Images via Getty Images)
Hanging up hot cross buns and Good Friday loaves were believed to ward off evil. Some people still practice it today, like pub employee Margaret Utteridge, 74, who has worked at The Bell Inn, High Road, Horndon-on-the Hill, Essex since 1984. She hangs a hot cross bun from a beam which has been a tradition at the inn since 1906. (Getty Images)

"People were very clear from when they first start really discussing them that the cross on the hot cross bun is there to commemorate the cross on which Jesus died. You had them once a year, on Good Friday, the day Jesus died, so they were a very special thing."

Prof Earle says she found a comment from around 1804 in which a person said: "The cross is designed to commemorate the cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified."

But hot cross buns may have been caught in the crossfire between Catholics and Protestants during the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. It has been suggested that during this time, when England was transitioning from a Catholic to a Protestant country, there was an Elizabethan order to "control these early versions of hot cross buns" out of fear they were "too ‘Catholic’", according to English Heritage.

While there isn’t any direct evidence that Elizabethan England waged war against hot cross buns, there was certainly skepticism among 19th century Protestants who dismissed some of the beliefs surrounding the buns as "a remnant of Catholicism and superstition".

Prof Earle adds: “in the 19th century, people started becoming interested in folk customs and historical practices, and that’s when people started suggesting that the tradition of making a sweet bread for a special religious occasion is not necessarily Christian.

Home made trendy hot cross buns.
Recipes for hot cross buns have changed throughout the years. (Getty Images)

"People started saying it was superstitious to do things like hang them up in the corner of the house and leave them up all year round because of the belief they would protect them against fire or evil. They saw it as a folk practice. Hot cross buns were a fine thing to eat, but there were all kinds of weird superstitions associated with them that 19th century ethnographers thought were silly."

While changing the cross on hot cross buns might be a step too far from tradition, the recipe for hot cross buns has always changed. Prof Earle says she found recipes for hot cross buns that didn’t have dried fruit and used caraway seeds instead of cinnamon.

"You can flavour it with whatever you fancy," she says. "They were a phenomenon of the period. The people who sold them would walk around the streets of London and cry out ‘Hot cross buns!’, which is where the children’s nursery rhyme comes from.

"There’s lots of commentary that these street sellers were quite noisy, and it was the first thing you would hear on Good Friday morning. There were certain shops in Chelsea that were really famous for their hot cross buns and there would be a big queue of people, they’d be selling hundreds of them in an hour."

New varieties of hot cross buns are constantly popping up in supermarkets and bakeries now. From red velvet and banoffee-flavoured hot cross buns, to even savoury cheese and tomato hot cross buns, recipes have always changed throughout history - as has tradition.

Read more about Easter: