Did you have hot cross buns for breakfast today? I did. Do you know why we have them at Easter? I remember the rhyme from childhood, but I must admit that not having a religious upbringing I didn’t know the history of this seasonal sweet bun. As I sat munching and sipping my tea this morning I did some research, and I figured I can’t be the only one who didn’t know all the tidbits I found. So, here you go – new knowledge for your brain.
Let’s start at the beginning: Easter Sunday is the celebration at the end of Lent, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is the period before Easter, starting on or about Ash Wednesday (depending on your religion), and ending just before Easter. It signifies the 40 days that Jesus wandered in the desert, and those observing Lent solemnly honour his sacrifice by many activities that seek to bring them closer to God. Fasting as Jesus did, or giving up luxuries in life is usual for the faithful during Lent; prayer, penance and repentance are also common. Hence the common expression, “giving up (something) for Lent”.
The Lenten fast of ancient times was much more broad and strict than it is today, in some places allowing only bread in one’s diet, but for most removing all animal products and allowing no meals until later in the day or the evening. Nowadays, a fast usually involves a full meal and up to two “collations” – sustenance to keep one going, but not so much as to count for a full meal. Some people do not fast but do remove meat from their diets, either for all of Lent or at least on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays and Saturdays in Lent. Lent ends either on Good Friday, or at midday on Easter Saturday, depending on your faith.
Since no animal products were allowed during Lent, sweet breads (containing milk, eggs and/or butter) would not be on the menu. Therefore, hot cross buns would be eaten at the end of Lent. They are not just a random treat, either – the cross on the top signifies the crucifixion of Jesus, and the spices represent those used to embalm him for his funeral. The first hot cross bun was apparently baked by a monk in medieval times.
The solemn nature of hot cross buns is not to be taken lightly – in 1592, Queen Elizabeth I actually forbid their sale on any day but holy days (Good Friday, Christmas, or for funerals). The punishment for selling them was to have all your product donated to the poor. James I of England did the same thing in the 1600’s; for many years you could not find a hot cross bun recipe, as the buns were only made in secret by home bakers. The first modern record of them is a written account of street sellers hawking them in the 1700’s, the source of the nursery rhyme I remember:
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!
Of course, as with most things that carry such significance there are many bits of folklore attached to hot cross buns. Did you know…
- hot cross buns are said to have healing powers? If you give one to someone who is sick, it can help make them better (perhaps this comes from sharing them with those less fortunate?)
- hot cross buns don’t go bad? If you hang one in your kitchen on Good Friday, it will bode for good breads all year long, and keep your house safe from fire and bad spirits. (the preserved fruit would help keep the bun fresher, but I’m not sure I would keep it up for a full year.)
- hot cross buns are full of luck? Taking one on a sea voyage will prevent a shipwreck, and it is said that friends sharing a bun will have a strong bond of friendship in the coming year. (Any hope against shipwreck was probably worth trying; as for friendships, well who wouldn’t want a pal that shared their treat?)
Although I don’t observe any traditional religion, I do certainly believe that sharing oneself with loved ones and in the community is important. I also believe that to be a good person requires thoughtfulness and focus. As such, I can understand the importance of Easter and appreciate its solemn history.
So, in honour of Easter, may you enjoy every moment. Whether you celebrate a feast day that is at the centre of your faith, or your family, or both, I wish you well this Easter weekend.
Peace be with you.
Did you know that’s what “Mardi Gras” meant? Yup, the name was pretty straight-forward; the day before Ash Wednesday is traditionally the last day to binge on all the rich foods and other excesses you would be giving up for Lent. It is a day to consider in what areas of our life we might need to improve, and how better to do that than over a great meal? While I am not a member of a congregation that takes on this traditional belief, I don’t mind the opportunity to enjoy the fun of it.
I’m going out for pancakes to celebrate Fat Tuesday. This is such a traditional food for the day that some call it Pancake Tuesday. In England, there is a town that has even held a pancake race since 1445! It’s in honour of a parishioner who apparently lost track of time and ran out her door with her pan of pancakes in her hand when the church bell rang to signal the service starting. Today contestants dress up like housewives in aprons and kerchiefs, and must carry their pan (complete with pancake) over a 415 yard course through town. They even have to flip their pancake at the start and finish of the race!
In Iceland, my heritage on my father’s side of the family, the day is called “Sprengidagur”, which translates as Bursting Day (don’t you love the sense of humour?) Salted meat and peas were the traditional fare, but I think I would have preferred Icelandic pancakes, Ponnokukur.
Despite my lightheartedness at describing these activities, my aim is not to belittle the serious religious custom that is at the core of Shrove Tuesday. “Shrove” is the past tense of the English verb shrive which was to obtain absolution for one’s sins through confession. Your last chance to be shriven was on Shrove Tuesday, as Lent begins the next day and penance would start. Similarly, Carnival (spelt in various ways in different languages) comes from the Latin carne levare, meaning to take away meat, a common practice during Lent. The festivities of Carnival – dressing up, dancing, indulging in rich foods and other decadent pastimes – were other ways of celebrating the excess before Lent. The masquerade, where people covered their identities with a mask, was said to sometimes offer a chance for lovers to be together in public. This is perhaps the culmination of all things excessive, and is a famous part of the Carnevale in Venice, Italy.
Rich foods like donuts and pancakes have been customary on this day as they were a good way to use many of the rich foods in the pantry before Lent began, like eggs and milk and sugar. It strikes me that the rich foods of winter start to become less popular about this time of year even in secular circles, so even those without religious background can look upon this day as an opportunity to reflect on the coming of the lighter and often healthier fare of spring and summer.
Whatever you do in the coming weeks, as the year edges on and spring comes ever closer, I hope you will have a chance to reflect on how you can make the most of it and how you can enjoy your blessings. I think that might be the simple truth of this ancient holiday.
Isn’t it interesting that the day proceeding the start of Lent is seen in some places as an all-out binge, as if to signify that one should load up to make sure that there are minimal regrets whilst one is supposed to abstain from those excesses in life? Or perhaps the idea was to give you something to think about on those long pre-spring nights, knowing how good life can be and pondering the value of what is missing and how those blessings enrich our lives?? Well, without sounding too crass I hope, I would like to suggest that whichever way you take Mardi Gras, (or Fat Tuesday as it translates to English) you should take advantage of a day that encourages you to enjoy life and share that joy.
Wouldn’t it brighten a mid-February evening to have the family dress up for dinner and show off their outfits the way the bourgeois used to strut their stuff inVenice cafes? Or perhaps you would prefer to turn up the music (and maybe the heat) and adorn everyone with beaded necklaces? You could play New Orleans jazz and march around the living room, or go more exotic and add feathers – it’s like Rio! Trust me, it won’t take long before everyone is in the spirit of things… and then there is the food and drink, of course.
It’s okay – you have spent the last six weeks trying to live up to your new resolutions and improve your routine, so don’t you deserve to cut yourself a little slack? Skip the gym for a day or two and burn off that energy by dancing! Cook up your favourite specialties, or look to the traditional items for Mardi Gras – various kinds of donuts and fritters, crepes or pancakes; the King cake with a hidden figurine (whoever gets it in their piece has to host the next party!); sparkling wines are good, cognac works too, or even fun cocktails will work! After all, this is one of those times when the philosophy of “carpe diem” applies to the fullest extent. If your life was over the next day, what would you most want to do?
It seems to be a reminder we need often but heed rarely – to live life to its fullest, and enjoy each moment for what it brings.
Even if you can’t take much time to live on the edge and get into the spirit of Mardi Gras, think about splurging a little bit on something and do it without guilt but just for the sheer enjoyment. (You can always feel guilty tomorrow!)