The ritual of ship "christenings" reaches back as far as 4000 years in recorded history. Wine has been used as the time-tested toast to new ships can be traced almost as far back as history. When champagne became widely known, it was used in place of wine since the more costly champagne was held in higher esteem.
Ship "christenings" in the days of the Vikings were marked by the spilling of blood, human sacrifices and incantations by high priests to appease the gods. The Greeks and Romans later used water as a token of purification in blessings of the ship and her crew, officers, passengers and cargo.
During the Middle Ages, religious shrines were placed about the ship. Many historians agree that a libation of wine – offered as the vessel hit the water – became a substitute for the earlier blood sacrifice.
Christening ceremonies during the Tudor era took place after the ship was in the water. Announced by a fanfare of trumpets, a king’s lieutenant would appear and be seated in an ornate chair on the ship’s poop deck. He was presented with a goblet made of precious metal and filled with red wine. After a ceremonial sip of the wine, he would politely whisper the ship’s name, wishing her good luck on her voyages. Then, spilling a bit of the wine on the deck, he would draw the four points of the compass before drinking to the king’s good health. As a finale, the lieutenant would toss the goblet over the side and leave the ship. Many of the spectators went over the side along with the goblet, hoping to salvage the golden "standing cup."
Enterprising shipbuilders, whose responsibility it was to supply the goblet, decided to salvage the cup themselves. They accomplished this by arranging a net around the ship, to the indignation of the general public. Public sentiment was so strongly aroused that the king ordered the practice stopped. When the shipbuilders protested, Charles II ordered that the Crown provide the cup, which was then presented to the master of the shipyard.
In the interest of further economy, the use of a cup was discontinued in 1690, with a bottle being substituted as the container.
The ceremony of christening a British ship was invariably performed by a male member of the Royal Family or by a dockyard commissioner until 1811 when King George IV introduced the first lady sponsor. One lady’s aim was so bad that she hit a spectator who was injured and sued for damages. The Admiralty then directed that in the future the bottle would be secured to the stem of the ship by a lanyard. This is the method still used today.
For more than a century, the tradition throughout the world has been that women christen ships. The custom has been broken only twice here at Newport News Shipbuilding, when a young boy christened a tug in 1909 and a 15-year old boy christened a cargo ship in 1916.
A great deal of attention is focused on the bottle of champagne used in the christening. At Newport News the bottle is enclosed in a slotted aluminum casing – made in the Shipyard – and then covered with a crocheted cotton sleeve. The coverings prevent fragments of the glass bottle from flying out and possibly injuring the sponsor or spectators.
The champagne is kept in an insulated bag – at room temperature – to ensure good fizz and splash when the bottle is broken during the christening. If the weather is cold an electric heater is provided to keep the bag warm. And a spare bottle is within easy reach as a backup to the original, just in case.
Champagne has not always been used at Newport News to christen ships. Ten ships have been baptized with non-alcoholic liquids – from grape juice to waters from the seven seas. In champagne the 1930’s, Prohibition dictated the use of non-alcoholic beverages for many christenings. On other occasions the ship’s sponsor or owner substituted a liquid they thought was more in keeping with the name of the vessel or its namesake.
Courtesy of http://www.nn.northropgrumman.com/Reagan/About_the_Christening/christening_tradition.htm