Every Good Friday morning the baker does a brisk business in hot cross buns, probably with little interest in the origin of the custom, his eye being rather upon the number sold and the accruing profits. There are three points to be considered: they are the three words themselves--buns, cross, and hot. The last mentioned seems to be a mark of modern taste and haste, for in past centuries they were "cross buns" pure and simple. To eat them piping hot out of the oven is an innovation of comparatively recent date. The sign of the Cross is easily accounted for, seeing it was part and parcel of the ritual of Roman Catholic worship.
In a curious and rare book, entitled The Canterburian's Self-Conviction (1640), in the Scottish dialect, no place or printer's name to assist identification, is this passage: "They avow that signing with the signe of the Cross at rysing or lying downe, at going out or coming in, at lighting of candles, closing of windowes, or any such action, is not only a pious and profitable ceremonie, but a very apostolick tradition."
Pennant, in his Welsh MS., says: "At the delivery of the bread and wine at the Sacrament, several, before they receive the bread or cup, though held out to them, will flourish a little with their thumb, something like making the figure of the Cross. They do it (the women mostly) when they say their prayers on their first coming to church."
Dalrymple, in his Travels in Spain, says that there "not a woman gets into a coach to go a hundred yards, nor a postilion on his horse, without crossing themselves. Even the tops of tavern bills and the directions of letters are marked with Crosses."
Among the Irish, when a woman milks her cow, she dips her fingers into the milk, with which she crosses the beast, and piously ejaculates a prayer, saying, "Mary and our Lord preserve thee, until I come to thee again."
But the origin of "buns" presents a little more difficulty. Hutchinson, in his History of Northumberland, following Mr Bryant's Antient Mythology, derives the Good Friday Bun from the sacred Cakes which were offered at the Arkite Temples, styled Boun, and presented every seventh day.
Mr Bryant has also the following passage on this subject:--"The offerings which people in ancient times used to present to the Gods were generally purchased at the entrance of the Temple; especially every species of consecrated bread, which was denominated accordingly. One species of sacred bread which used to be offered to the Gods, was of great antiquity, and called Boun. The Greeks, who changed the Nu final into a Sigma, expressed it in the nominative Bous, but in the accusative more truly Boun. Hesychius speaks of the Boun, and describes it a kind of cake with a representation of two horns. Julius Pollux mentions it after the same manner, a sort of cake with horns. Diogenes Laertius, speaking of the same offering being made by Empedocles, describes the chief ingredients of which it was composed. 'He offered one of the sacred Liba, called a Bouse, which was made of fine flour and honey.' It is said of Cecrops that he first offered up this sort of sweet bread. Hence we may judge of the antiquity of the custom from the times to which Cecrops is referred. The prophet Jeremiah takes notice of this kind of offering when he is spealing of the Jewish women at Pathros, in Egypt, and of their base idolatry; in all which their husbands had encouraged them. The women, in their expostulation upon his rebuke, tell him: 'Did we make her cakes to worship her?' Jerem. xliv. 18, 19; vii. 18. "Small loaves of bread," Mr Hutchinson observes, "peculiar in their form, being long and sharp at both ends, are called Buns." These he derives as above, and concludes: "We only retain the name and form of the Boun, the sacred uses are no more."
It would appear, therefore, as if we have to thank some Pagan custom for this Good Friday habit of eating hot cross buns, a custom which, like many others, was taken over by the Church and Christianised. In these days the religious significance has been completely lost, and the cross bun is no longer emblematical of a crucified God. It is an ecclesiastical remainder which has become a social habit.