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Friday, 25 March 2016

'Hot Cross Buns! One A penny! Two A Penny! Hot Cross Buns! - The Customs and Traditions of Good Friday

Traditional Hot Cross Bun
Good Friday is the first day after Lent, and hot cross buns have long been a favourite way to break the fast today. The buns are older than Christianity - pagan celebrants ate wheat cakes at their spring festivals, and the Greeks, Romans and Ancient Egyptians all had buns with a cross etched on the top. The round bun represented the full moon, and the cross divides the bun into the four lunar quarters. Traditional buns have the cross cut into the dough or pricked out with a pin: the brash pastry bands are a more recent thing. Not all Good Friday buns featured a cross, and in some areas they were triangular, like a samosa.

The well-known jingle 'Hot cross buns, one a penny, two a penny' is a street-seller's cry. The buns were traditionally eaten at breakfast, and the town vendors had to be on the streets before dawn to make the most of their once-a-year wares. The buns have been munched in England today for hundreds of years, but it was only in the last century that the tradition caught on across the rest of Britain.

The Widow’s Son Sign
In Bow in the East End of London there is a Victorian pub in Devons Road whose name – The Widow’s Son - evokes a sad story commemorated every Good Friday in what has become a little piece of naval tradition.

The pub was built in 1848 on the site formerly occupied by a poor widow’s cottage. Her only son was a sailor for whom she baked some hot cross buns, expecting him to return at or soon after Easter. When the son failed to return she hung the buns from her ceiling, and repeated the action the next year and the next, continuing until her death.

Given the fame locally of the story, the pub built where her cottage had stood took the name The Widow’s Son, and to some locals it is also known as The Bun House.

Every Good Friday a Royal Navy sailor presents a new bun to the pub for inclusion in the net, though naval involvement is relatively recent. The custom has developed somewhat over the last few years, with sailors visiting on the bun day to pay their respects, sing a song or two, and drink to the lost mariner. A sailor’s hat is now presented to the pub as well as the bun.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of Good Friday in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:- 
"Good Friday Bread. —It is generally believed that the bread baked on Good Firday never gets mouldy; an in some parts it  is used as a charm or talisman in order to make other bread " keep ".
The late Rev. Canon C. W. Bingham, a well-known writer upon Dorset antiquities, and who rendered most useful work to the Continuators of the third and last edition of Hutchins' 'History of Dorset', stated in Notes and Queries (Ser. III, viii, 146. 1865) that he had recently seen in a cottage a very small toy-loaf hanging over the  chimneypiece, and on inquiry was told that it had been baked on Good Friday, and that if it were carefully preserved it would prevent the good wife's bread from being " reamy ", that is, stringy, during the whole year.
The same preservative effect,that is, to prevent mouldiness or heaviness in bread,—is said to be obtained if a cross is pricked with a fork on the loaves before they are baked. In Dorsetshire the cross generally consists of five pricks or points, thus ..

The practice also obtained of making a cross in the flour before baking, and on the malt before mashing up before brewing, to keep it from being bewitched.(Conf. Shropshire Folk-Lore. p, 167)

I think it was this form of pricked cross that usually figured on the " hot-cross-buns " so generally consumed on this day.

A correspondent in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (1904), vol. ix, p. 113, speaking of " Good Friday Bread ", says that this was a large plain bread cake made at the same time as the buns for Good Friday, and marked with a cross. It was stored for the year and used as a remedy for sick cattle. It was supposed to be especially good for calves suffering from quarter-evil. When required for use a portion of the bread was crumbled, mixed with cider, and given as a drench. The correspondent adds that another peculiar use of the sign of the cross was that in the weekly making of bread for the household, and when the " leaven was laid " overnight (i.e. the yeast mixed with a part of the flour and left to ferment) a cross was marked in it to prevent the witches from dancing over it.

The Dorset editor of this periodical (Rev. Canon C. H. Mayo) added a footnote that a lady parishioner of his at Holnest, who died in 1895, was a firm believer in the virtues of Good Friday Bread. When grated it was taken as a remedy for diarrhoea. In some parts it is believed that it will cure any ailment.

Doles of loaves of bread, large and small for adults and children, were formerly distributed in the parish churchyard at Corfe Castle; but as that custom seems to have partaken more of a local character I have reserved any further account of it for my chapter on Local Customs.

Plants.—The late Rev. Canon Bingham mentions (Notes and Queries, Ser. II, vii, 451.) that a very fine Brompton stock was recently presented to him from a cottage garden in Dorsetshire, with the assurance that its flourishing condition was due to the fact of the seed from which it grew having been planted on Good Friday.

This testimony as to the efficacy of stock seed being sown on Good Friday is confirmed by the belief in some parts of the county that the flowers will in that case be double.

Bees.—Many people, I am told, make a practice of examining their hives on Good Friday, and salting the floor of the hives.

Nails.—It is believed in Portland that finger-nails must not be cut on Good Friday or you will suffer from toothache throughout the year.

Soapy water.—Another writer in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (1911), vol. xii, p. 232, states that an old Dorset woman, aged about 86, told him that she had been taught by her grandmother never to throw away soapy water on Good Friday. No reason was assigned for this except that it was said to have " something to do with our Saviour ".

An editorial footnote confirmed the existence of this belief, and added that it was also said that soapy water thrown away at this time turns to blood.

Several of these customs and superstitions referable to Good Friday have been noted by the late Mr. R. Bosworth Smith, of Bingham's Melcombe, in his Bird Life and Bird Lore (1909), p. 363 ; and it is not difficult, I think, to believe that he gathered much of his information from the same source that I have, namely, from the late Canon C. W. Bingham of that parish. He says:—

" Good Friday is one of the most important days of the year, from a secular as well as a religious point of view; the secular, doubtless, owing to the religious. Many of the villagers still make a point of baking a batch of bread on that day, and of setting apart a miniature loaf to be carefully kept, hung up by the fireside, throughout the year. It will prevent the bread of other bakings from turning ' vinny ' (Mouldy) or sour. A few crumbs of it, soaked in milk, are a sovereign specific for most of the ailments to which children's flesh is heir.

" In like manner they sow gilly flower seed at precisely 12 o'clock on Good Friday, in the belief that the flowers will come up double. Potatoes ' set' on that day, irrespective of the question—rather an important one, it will be admitted — whether Easter be early or late in the year, will have an important influence on all the other c settings ' of the season.

" The weather, indeed, of Good Friday and Easter Day is as important a factor in the growth of the hay crops, as is that of St. Swithin elsewhere :—

' Rain Good Friday or Easter Day, 

Much good grass, but little good hay'

Another Dorset writer, Mr. Wilkinson Sherren, in his Wessex of Romance (1908), p. 17, mentions the fact that in Moreton Church sprigs of English willow and pieces of yew-tree are placed at the end of every seat on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, arid that no one in the village remembers the time when this custom was not observed."
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days March 25th 1864, details the traditions of Good Friday.
The day of the Passion has been held as a festival by the Church from the earliest times. In England, the day is one of two (Christmas being the other) on which all business is suspended. In the churches, which are generally well attended, the service is marked by an unusual solemnity.
Before the change of religion, Good Friday was of course celebrated in England with the same religious ceremonies as in other Catholic countries. A dressed figure of Christ being mounted on a crucifix, two priests bore it round the altar, with doleful chants; then, laying it on the ground with great tenderness, they fell beside it, kissed its hands and feet with piteous sighs and tears, the other priests doing the like in succession. Afterwards came the people to worship the assumedly dead Saviour, each bringing some little gift, such as corn and eggs. There was finally a most ceremonious burial of the image, along with the 'singing bread,' amidst the light of torches and the burning of incense, and with flowers to strew over the grave.
The king went through the ceremony of blessing certain rings, to be distributed among the people, who accepted them as infallible cures for cramp. Coming in state into his chapel, he found a crucifix laid upon a cushion, and a carpet spread on the ground before it. The monarch crept along the carpet to the crucifix, as a token of his humility, and there blessed the rings in a silver basin, kneeling all the time, with his almoner likewise kneeling by his side. After this was done, the queen and her ladies came in, and likewise crept to the cross. The blessing of cramp-rings is believed to have taken its rise in the efficacy for that disease supposed to reside in a ring of Edward the Confessor, which used to be kept in Westminster Abbey. There can be no doubt that a belief in the medical power of the cramp-ring was once as faithfully held as any medical maxim whatever. Lord Berners, the accomplished translator of Froissart, while ambassador in Spain, wrote to Cardinal Wolsey, June 21, 1518, entreating him to reserve a few cramprings for him, adding that he hoped, with God's grace, to bestow them well.
A superstition regarding bread baked on Good Friday appears to have existed from an early period. Bread so baked was kept by a family all through the ensuing year, under a belief that a few gratings of it in water would prove a specific for any ailment, but particularly for diarrhea. We see a memorial of this ancient superstition in the use of what are called hot cross-buns, which may now be said to be the most prominent popular observance connected with the day.

In London, and all over England (not, however, in Scotland), the morning of Good Friday is ushered in with a universal cry of Hot Cross-Buns! A parcel of them appears on every break-fast table. It is a rather small bun, more than usually spiced, and having its brown sugary surface marked with a cross. Thousands of poor children and old frail people take up for this day the business of disseminating these quasi-religious cakes, only intermitting the duty during church hours; and if the eagerness with which young and old eat them could be held as expressive of an appropriate sentiment within their hearts, the English might be deemed a pious people. The ear of every person who has ever dwelt in England is familiar with the cry of the street bun-vendors:
One a penny, buns,
Two a penny, buns,
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross-buns!
Whether it be from failing appetite, the chilling effects of age, or any other fault in ourselves, we cannot say; but it strikes us that neither in the bakers' shops, nor from the baskets of the street-vendors, can one now get hot cross-buns comparable to those of past times. They want the spice, the crispness, the everything they once had. Older people than we speak also with mournful affection of the two noted bun-houses of Chelsea. Nay, they were Royal bun-houses, if their signs could be believed, the popular legend always insinuating that the King himself had stopped there, bought, and eaten. of the buns. Early in the present century, families of the middle classes walked a considerable way to taste the delicacies of the Chelsea bun-houses, on the seats beneath the shed which screened the pavement in front. An insane rivalry, of course, existed between the two houses, one pretending to be The Chelsea Bun-house, and the other the Real Old Original Chelsea Bun-house. Heaven knows where the truth lay, but one thing was certain and assured to the innocent public, that the buns of both were so very good that it was utterly impossible to give an exclusive verdict in favour of either.
A writer, signing himself H. C. B., gives in the Athenaeum for April 4, 1857, an account of an ancient sculpture in the Museo Borbonico at Rome, representing the miracle of the five barley loaves. The loaves are marked each with a cross on the surface, and the circumstance is the more remarkable, as the hot cross-bun is not a part of the observance of the day on the Continent. H. C. B. quotes the late Rev. G. S. Faber for a train of speculation, having for its conclusion that our eating of the hot cross-buns is to be traced back to a pagan custom of worshipping the Queen of Heaven with cakes—a custom to be found alike in China and in ancient Mexico, as well as many other countries. In Egypt, the cakes were horned to resemble the sacred heifer, and thence called boas, which in one of its oblique cases is boun—in short, bun! So people eating these hot cross-bunslittle know what, in reality, they are about.

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