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Why is a new ship christened with a bottle of champagne?

The caller on phone line number two wanted to know, “Why is a new ship christened with a bottle of champagne?” This is one of those practices that the Newton Falls Public Library staff is aware of, but never really thought of the reason behind it.

Page 791 of Popular Beliefs and Superstitions: a compendium of American folklore: from the Ohio Collection of Newbell Niles Puckett, under the heading Christening of a Ship; The Name of a Ship includes the following beliefs: “Christening a ship with champagne will bring it and its crew good luck” and “It is bad luck to christen a boat with anything but champagne.” The section also  that said “A ship must be christened with the breaking of a bottle of wine . . . to be safe and lucky.”

Library staff members remembered hearing of bottles containing fluids other than champagne being used. To discover if this was so, we looked online and found that the Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center has a website dedicated to Naval History and Heritage with frequently asked questions. Christening, Launching, and Commissioning of U.S. Navy Ships by John C. Reilly (Head, Ships History Branch). [www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq108.htm] relates the history of this practice back to 3rd millennium BCE Babylon. Later, Jews and Christians used water or wine to ask God to protect the ship. Ottoman Empire residents prayed to Allah and sacrificed a sheep and then feasted. Beginning in the 19th century in the United States of America, women began to customarily “sponsor” or christen ships. It was during this time that champagne began to be used, perhaps for its elegance, and has continued except for during Prohibition. Over the years, wine, cider, holy water, sea water, spring water, river water, whiskey, and brandy have been used.

For answers to your questions, visit the Newton Falls Public Library, 204 S. Canal Street, Newton Falls or phone 330-872-1282. For information about library programs or hours, also visit our website at www.newtonfalls.org.

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