St Dunstan’s Cup

St Dunstan’s Cup is the name given to a wassail-and-carousing practice once popular in the Fens and the Ditches. In the midst of a wassail-and-carouse, a participant would throw their drained goblet up in the air, and whoever caught it with one hand upon its descent would become “St Dunstan”. Other wassailers-and-carousers would then pick “St Dunstan” up, carry him to the yard outwith the wassailing-and-carousing parlour, and fling him into a cesspit. After wallowing for a few minutes, “St Dunstan” would then heave himself out of the pit, crawl back into the parlour, and shout “Which among you is my uncle Ælfheah, Bishop of Winchester?” The person roaring their head off at the most ear-shattering volume would be dubbed the Bishop, and “St Dunstan” would hand them the goblet, which would again be tossed into the air, and thus the whole senseless business would begin again. At most wassails-and-carouses in the Fens and the Ditches, St Dunstan’s Cup would continue until everybody present had been flung into the cesspit at least once.

The practice is thought to have died out with the development of modern sanitary methods of coping with human filth and muck. In those wassailing-and-carousing parlours which still survive, it has been replaced by a game called St Dunstan’s Tongs. This is a far more complicated pastime, with abstruse rules, and has been described as “contract bridge for the hopelessly inebriate”. Some Sunday newspapers published in the Fens and Ditches carry columns devoted to the strategy and tactics of St Dunstan’s Tongs, written in impenetrable prose.

Next week : St Dymphna’s Pinking Shears.

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