Wine has been a part of many cultural traditions for thousands of years. One familiar tradition is the smashing of a bottle of Champagne against the bow of a ship as part of a ship christening ceremony. But what is the origin of this tradition?
For thousands of years, many cultures have christened their ships, and wine has long been part of the tradition. For example, ancient Greeks held ceremonies asking Poseidon to protect their ships and all who sailed in them. Wine was a part of the ceremony, except in contrast to the custom we are familiar with today, they drank the wine and poured water on the ship as part of the blessing. Some claim that ancient people christened ships with blood as an offering to the sea gods, but as time went on, this practice was seen as barbaric and red wine was used instead. Over time, as Christianity spread, religious ship christening ceremonies also included wine, according to John C. Reilly, Head of the Ships History Branch for the US Department of the Navy.
Cups were used before bottle breaking became a tradition. For example, it is said that in Tudor England there was an elaborate christening ceremony involving a goblet made of precious metal. After the king’s lieutenant sipped red wine from the goblet, he whispered the ship’s name and asked God to protect the ship. Then, he dribbled some wine on the ship’s deck, used his sword to draw the points of a compass, and threw the goblet overboard.
According to Reilly, by the seventeenth century, the British used a “standing cup,” a large loving cup made from precious metal, in their christening ceremonies. When the ship began to slide towards the water, the presiding official took a ceremonial sip of wine from the cup, and poured the rest on the deck or over the bow. Then, the cup was thrown overboard, and whoever retrieved the cup was allowed to keep it. Over time, as navies grew and launchings occurred more frequently, nets were used to retrieve the expensive cup for reuse. Around 1690, the British abandoned the “standing cup” ceremony and started breaking a bottle of wine across the bow instead. It is said that this was motivated by a desire to save money.
Today, many think of Champagne as the traditional “christening fluid,” but it was not widely used for ship christenings until the end of the nineteenth century; presumably, it was adopted because of its special “cache.” Typically, the bottle is kept at room temperature to ensure good fizz at the moment of impact, and it is sheathed in a protective coating to ensure that bystanders are not hit by flying glass fragments.
Over the years, a variety of liquids have been used to christen ships, including holy water, sea water, whiskey, brandy and Madeira, which was used to christen the US Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) in 1797. During Prohibition, people in the US made do with liquids such as river water, cider and grape juice as wine was not available. Seems a lot less fun than using Champagne, doesn’t it?
To read Reilly’s paper and learn more about the history of christening, launching and commissioning of ships, see: Christening, Launching and Commissioning of US Navy Ships.