Bun, a small cake, usually sweet and round. In Scotland the word is used for a very rich spiced type of cake and in the north of Ireland for a round loaf of ordinary bread. The derivation of the word has been much disputed. It has been affiliated to the old provincial French bugne, "swelling," in the sense of a "fritter," but the New English Dictionary doubts the usage of the word. It is quite as probable that it has a far older and more interesting origin, as is suggested by an inquiry into the origin of hot cross buns. These cakes, which are now solely associated with the Christian Good Friday, are traceable to the remotest period of pagan history. Cakes were offered by ancient Egyptians to their moon-goddess; and these had imprinted on them a pair of horns, symbolic of the ox at the sacrifice of which they were offered on the altar, or of the horned moon-goddess, the equivalent of Ishtar of the Assyro-Babylonians. The Greeks offered such sacred cakes to Astarte and other divinities. This cake they called bous (ox), in allusion to the ox-symbol marked on it, and from the accusative boun it is suggested that the word "bun" is derived.
Diogenes Laertius (c. A.D. 200), speaking of the offering made by Empedocles, says "He offered one of the sacred liba, called a bouse, made of fine flour and honey." Hesychius (c. 6th century) speaks of the boun, and describes it as a kind of cake with a representation of two horns marked on it. In time the Greeks marked these cakes with a cross, possibly an allusion to the four quarters of the moon, or more probably to facilitate the distribution of the sacred bread which was eaten by the worshippers. Like the Greeks, the Romans eat cross-bread at public sacrifices, such bread being usually purchased at the doors of the temple and taken in with them, - a custom alluded to by St Paul in I Cor. x. 28. At Herculaneum two small loaves about 5 in. in diameter, and plainly marked with a cross, were found. In the Old Testament a reference is made in Jer. vii. 18-xliv. 19, to such sacred bread being offered to the moon goddess. The cross-bread was eaten by the pagan Saxons in honour of Eoster, their goddess of light. The Mexicans and Peruvians are shown to have had a similar custom.
The custom, in fact, was practically universal, and the early Church adroitly adopted the pagan practice, grafting it on to the Eucharist. The boun with its Greek cross became akin to the Eucharistic bread or cross-marked wafers mentioned in St Chrysostom's Liturgy. In the medieval church, buns made from the dough for the consecrated Host were distributed to the communicants after Mass on Easter Sunday. In France and other Catholic countries, such blessed bread is still given in the churches to communicants who have a long journey before they can break their fast. The Holy Eucharist in the Greek church has a cross printed on it. In England there seems to have early been a disposition on the part of the bakers to imitate the church, and they did a good trade in buns and cakes stamped with a cross, for as far back as 1252 the practice was forbidden by royal proclamation; but this seems to have had little effect. With the rise of Protestantism the cross bun lost its sacrosanct nature, and became a mere eatable associated for no particular reason with Good Friday. Cross-bread is not, however, reserved for that day; in the north of England people usually crossmark their cakes with a knife before putting them in the oven. Many superstitions cling round hot cross buns.
Thus it is still a common belief that one bun should be kept for luck's sake to the following Good Friday. In Dorsetshire it is thought that a cross-loaf baked on that day and hung over the chimneypiece prevents the bread baked in the house during the year from "going stringy."