A fine naval tradition and one of the oldest ones that exists in one form or another to this day.
It seems that ever since man took to the seas he felt the need to call upon the gods to offer up some form of protection from either the monsters that resided within the deep or from the elements themselves. Hence, a ceremony was to be performed that was intended to do just that.
The earliest known recordings of ships being christened is thought to have originated with the Vikings. In perhaps what was a sign of the times or maybe because they just didn’t want to waste their precious supply of alcohol, the Vikings took to pouring of blood and the offering up of human sacrifices in order to protect their ships. High priests were usually on call and acted as the master of ceremonies
As we move to the ancient Greeks and Romans, we find that the ceremony has become a bit more civilized. Although alcohol was probably abundant, the liquid of choice used in the ceremony was water. Not only was the ship purified by the splashing of water, all crew members, officers, passengers and cargo were given received a small shower in order to protect them on their voyages.
With the advent of the Middle Ages and with the spread of Christianity on the rise, it wasn’t too long before the ceremony took on a religious slant. Statues and shrines usually adorned the vessel and wine was substituted for the flavor of the day when the craft was ready to make its maiden voyage.
Leave it the British to add some pomp and circumstance
to the proceedings. During the Tudor
era, a ship's christening was greeted with much fanfare. Trumpet
s were played and one of the King
’s own Lieutenant
s was called upon to take part in the ceremonies. He would be escorted on the ship and sit at a reserved seat on the poop deck
. From there he was presented with a goblet of gold
and filled with red wine
. He would then take a ceremonial first sip from the goblet and whisper the ship's name and ask that the gods bestow her with good luck on her passing. From there he would then dribble some of the fluid along the deck and with the tip of his sword
, draw the four points of the compass
. As a final act, he would toss the goblet overboard and disembark the vessel.
Since said goblet was made of precious metal, it was a common practice for many of the spectators to dive in the water and try and recover it. This kind of irked the shipbuilders themselves since it was their duty to supply the goblet in the first place and they wanted it returned. They accomplished that feat by encircling the ship with a net and once the goblet hit the water, they pulled it back aboard before a member of the general public had a chance to get their hands on it.
I guess public sentiment can be a very powerful influence at times. The people were so outraged at the thought of the goblet being returned to the shipbuilders that they raised their voice in protest and being the good King that he was , Charles II put the matter to rest. He decided that it was the Crown’s responsibility to provide the goblet and since what was made by the Crown belonged to the Crown they had a right to do whatever they pleased with it. Usually it wound up back in the hands of the master of the shipyard.
I guess that even the Crown found that the practice of supplying the goblet was getting a little expensive and around 1690 a bottle was used as a substitute. Originally filled with wine, the beverage of choice soon progressed to champagne. The bottle was thrown at the ship and the phrase “I christen thee in the name of….” became popular.
All seemed well. Since the ceremony was always performed by a male member of the Royal Family, chances were that their aim was good enough to hit the ship with the bottle. Around 1811 or so, King George IV decided to open up the little fraternity of ship christeners to women. It wasn’t too long before one woman missed the ship entirely and wound up beaning one the spectators. In a portend of the beginnings of litigious society, they in turn tried to sue for damages. Not wanting to run the risk of further mishaps and to avoid legal damages, the Crown came upon the method that is still in use today. The bottle is now tied to the ship thereby assuring accuracy.
Here in the States, the ceremony is pretty much the same as our British cousins. The only difference was that it became customary for a woman to christen a ship and the bottle is usually smashed against the side of the ship.
This has sometimes led to embarrassing moments in circumstances when the bottle wouldn’t break on impact but certain precautions have been taken to prevent that from happening. First of all, the bottle is stored at room temperature in order to make the champagne fizzier and to provide a good photo opportunity for anybody covering the event. In order to try an prevent anybody from being injured by flying glass, the bottle itself is usually stored in a protective mesh netting.
Side note: Even though it’s up to the ship owners to name the beverage that will christen the ship, I believe the only time champagne wasn’t the beverage of choice was during the Prohibition. Grape juice, while not a bad beverage in its own right, was the standard substitute for champagne. Somehow, the ceremony had lost a little of its allure.