bread has long played an important role in religious ceremonies and holidays. holiday breads are often baked in symbolic shapes and include special ingredients. easter breads often feature eggs, a commodity forbidden by the catholic church during lent. (who knew? not i.)
the practice of eating special small cakes at the time of the spring festival dates back at least to the ancient greeks. the saxons ate buns marked with a cross in honor of the goddess of light, eostre, whose name was transferred to easter. these religious offerings of bread replaced earlier offerings of blood. when archeologists excavated the city of herculaneum in southwestern italy, buried under volcanic ask and lava since 79 C.E., they found two small loaves, each with a cross on it, among the ruins.
the english custom of eating spiced buns on good friday was likely established in tudor times. the word "bun" probably came from the greek “boun”, which referred to a ceremonial cake of circular or crescent shape, made of flour and hone and offered to the gods. in england, people believed that bread baked on good friday could be hardened in the oven and kept all year to protect the house from fire. they also believe that hanging a hot cross bun in the house on this day offers protection from bad luck in the coming year. good friday buns hang for years, gathering dust and growing black with mold--although some people believe that if the ingredients are mixed, the dough prepared, and the buns baked on good friday itself, they will never get moldy. (i will not be assessing if this is true. i ate mine.)