New Years comes with a set of annual traditions. There is champagne, cork pops, ball drops, and then there is a list of things that we plan on doing over the next year that we inevitably seem to fail at doing.
Champagne is believed to have taken on the role of “symbol of joyful occasion” in the last two hundred years, but the legend is taht it was little more than a nuisance when it was first discovered. Dom perignon, a Benedictine monk from the province of Champagne, France, famed as the original discoverer of Champagne, as he stumbled upon the process of halted secondary fermentation through aeration of the wine that produces the carbonation in the liquid. The story is something along the lines of him bottling the wines early and coming into contact with cold and damp weather that slowed the fermentation. When the process was finished, accompanied by some exploding bottles (French bottles weren’t made to resist the pressures of the secondary fermentation) he tasted the drink and bolted about calling, “Come quickly! I am drinking the Stars!” While it is a popular story that is widely known, the assumption is that it is incorrect for a number of reasons.
The story that I’ve been able to find is that a group of Champenios (people from the province of Champagne) gathered together in the 1930s during the Depression and hosted a three day long brouhaha to celebrate “the 250th anniversary of Dom Perignon’s discovery” irregardless of the actual historical inaccuracies. Their hail Mary worked and the Champagne sales rocketed while Dom Perignon was granted an immortal position in the wine maker’s pantheon.
Dom Perignon’s wine is believed to have been great, a grand red wine that was given to King Louis XIV, but it was not the bubbly that we know and associate him with today. The true origin is now believed to have been in England, where Christopher Merret was believed to have written down a recipe for the drink over 20 years before Dom Perignon’s famous star tasting. The English hold that Merret was experimenting with a similar process that the Brits used on ciders where sugar was added to start a secondary fermentation, and that English bottles were built stronger and thicker than French ones because of glassblowing techniques, making them able to withstand it. The true reason for the secondary fermentation allowing the bubbles to begin wasn’t discovered until the mid 1800s when Louis Pasteur discovered how aeration could arrest anaerobic fermentation (originally to stop putrefaction of a liquid like milk), a process that we now call Pasteurization.
As for New Years resolutions, the history behind those is an old and religious one. Babylonians would celebrate their New Years at the beginning of the Spring and would use the time as the moment to promise the Gods that they would do good things or great conquest. Romans would start their new year on January 1st. The date literally has no significance, it was just picked at random by Julius Caesar to honor the two faced god Janus. The New Year’s beginning would mark the time where assorted vows could be reestablished (see “The Vow of the Peacock” to read a 1315 poem on the subject). The most similar thing to what we have now is from the Watchnight service in the Methodist Church, thought to come form the Moravian tradition in Czechoslovakian history where people would stay up on the final day of the year and pray, sing, meet and make resolutions for their upcoming year. As is the same with much of history, there is no true connection that can be easily found that connects the past to the present beyond the simple passage of time and the way that centuries can make a deeply religiously based tradition into a secular one that has less to do with not sinning and more to do with not eating cookies.
Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different. Now when you look at a bottle of milk, just remember; both the moo juice and the NASCAR celebration bath were brought to you by the same guy. Kudos to you Louis Pasteur. Kudos to you.
Citations, because Champagne history is a surprisingly contentious issue:
Champagne from Champagne is totally Champagne champagne.
Merret’s Merits and Pasteur’s… Pasteurs?
THE VOW OF THE PEACOCK.