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Why We Drink Champagne on New Year’s Eve

Come midnight on December 31, the soundtrack of your life will likely feature at least one of the following: fireworks exploding, noisemakers bleating, champagne corks popping.

One can only assume that a special place in hell is occupied by the inventor of the New Year’s Eve noisemaker. One can also assume that a comfortable alcove in heaven is occupied by Dom Pérignon, or whomever it was who invented champagne some three centuries ago.

But why champagne, and why New Year’s Eve?

Credit is hard to assign, but let us start with Julius Caesar. Before him, pagans celebrated the vernal equinox, the moment winter tipped into spring, when people actually had something to look forward to other than frostbite followed by slush. The early Romans celebrated likewise, until Caesar added two months to an admittedly sloppy pagan calendar, and decreed that Roman consuls begin heir terms at the start of newly created January, named after the god Janus, who had two faces and could look both forward and back.

Celebrating the arrival of this new year took root across Europe, then was brought by European settlers to the Americas. By 1800 it was common to remain awake until midnight, when church bells tolled and firearms fired. In some cities, it became tradition to roam from house to house, with the full expectation you’d be invited in for a drink. Doing so spanned the social ladder: American residents from George Washington to FDR traditionally opened the doors of the White House to anyone dressed decently and with a letter of introduction, feting them with midnight punch and snacks. Elsewhere, servants and slaves would pound on doors and demand midnight drinks.

One 1852 account of New Year’s festivities noted that taverns served “villainous compounds,” the clergy served Arrack punch and the mayor served lemonade. The air was also reportedly filled with the sounds of “guns and pistols from evening till morning, and with champagne corks from morning till evening.”

Champagne was then just one of many drinks served, but it soon began its ascent toward ubiquity. Champagne is one of civilization’s great examples of a flaw evolving into a feature. It started when French wine was bottled before being fully fermented; the yeast got busy and the wine got fizzy. For years, the fizz was assumed to mask poor-quality wine, but after a century of fine-tuning, producers perfected the making of crisp, delicate champagnes. Royalty clamored for it, followed by nobility, followed by the rising merchant class that thought of itself as both royal and noble. Think: aspirational drinking.

“One observer noted in 1881 that the increased use of champagne at festive gatherings was ‘a charming fashion that is beginning to be more common,’ ” writes Kolleen Guy in When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity. Producers started to market it as a drink to celebrate a special occasion with family. As the Industrial Revolution minted a new middle class, sales of sparkling wine soared from 6 million bottles in 1850 to 28 million by 1900. And what better occasion to pull out all stops and flaunt your aspirations than New Year’s Eve?

One could make an argument that champagne’s New Year’s high point occurred in the first decade of the 20th century at Cafe New Year’s Eve party in France, 1937 Martin’s in New York City. This French restaurant was among the first rank of “lobster palaces,” where the cream of society went to entertain themselves. On New Year’s Eve, guests could order anything they wanted to drink, as long as they wanted champagne—it was reputedly the first place to go “champagne only” after 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. “To get a table at all on New Year’s Eve is difficult,” wrote a visitor in 1910, “when you get one you must drink what you are told.”

Martin’s list featured some 200 champagnes—although the distinction between “champagne” and “Champagne” (a protected designation, like Roquefort and Cognac) had not yet been embraced in the United States. And the flow of champagne at Martin’s wasn’t necessarily driven by consumer demand; “everyone got a piece of the action, including the waiters who saved the corks, receiving a kickback from the wine importers for each bottle they popped,” wrote the 1910 guest. Champagne, like all adult beverages, suffered under the tyranny of Prohibition and was unsteady in its return to the New Year’s Eve table. (In 1967, the winner of the LeMans was evidently the first to celebrate by shaking and spraying a bottle of champagne, ushering in an era in which athletes celebrate by pouring one of civilization’s most sublime discoveries over the heads of sweaty fellow combatants.)

Champagne is back today, the finer brands still sought by royalty and nobility and the growing bourgeoisie. The rest of us, in the meantime, have been finding less-expensive sparkling wines to greet the New Year, like cava and prosecco.

Which, of course, is fine. The important part of New Year’s Eve is the popping of the cork—and, yes, I’m aware that the buzzkills say that sparkling wine should never be popped. But the pop! marks a moment in one’s personal chronology, after which everything will be different … at least until morning. When you hear that sound you can see Janus smiling, both forward and back.

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