The Cunning Scheme Which Made Champagne the Drink of New Year’s Eve

Tonight, when the clock strikes 12, two things are guaranteed: fireworks will explode in the sky, and countless bottles of champagne will be opened (in the United States alone, an estimated 360 million glasses of champagne are poured on New Year’s Eve).  

But why champagne? Let’s start with a history of New Year’s Eve.

The Roman calendar originally had 10 months, which explains the confusing October and December. Around 700 BCE, January and February were added as the final two months of the year, with March (Martius) being the first month. Martius was an important month as pagans celebrated the vernal equinox, the moment winter tipped into spring. Shortly after, King Numa Pompilius (c. 715 – 673 BCE) revised the Roman republican calendar so January replaced March as the first month.  Fast forward 6 centuries, Julius Caesar is dictator of Rome and has decided to reform the calendar. The Romans had been attempting to follow the lunar cycle but the pontifices, the corrupt Roman committee which oversaw the calendar, often added days to interfere with elections meaning the calendar was always out of sync.  

So, Caesar approached Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer, who advised him to abandon the lunar cycle entirely and adopt the solar year, as did the Egyptians. The year was calculated to be 365.25 days, and Caesar added 67 days to 46 B.C., making 45 B.C. begin on January 1. Unfortunately, celebrations of the new year remained inconsistent. The correct value for the solar year is 365.242199 days, not 365.25 days as Julius Caesar believed. This 11-minute per-year error added seven days by the year 1000 CE, and 10 days by the mid-15th century. 

When the Catholic Church became aware of this problem in the 1570s, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to construct a new calendar. In 1582, the Gregorian calendar was implemented, removing 10 days for that year and establishing the leap year. Since then, people around the world have celebrated the precise arrival of the New Year on January 1st. 

By 1800 it was common to remain awake until midnight, when church bells tolled. In many places, it became tradition to walk from house to house, with the full expectation you’d be invited in for a drink. Champagne just one of many drinks served. Then in the mid 19th century, champagne producers started to market it as a drink to celebrate a special occasion with family. The Industrial Revolution created a new middle class, and sales of sparkling wine soared. “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,’” wrote Kolleen Guy, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of "When Champagne Became French" (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). 

And then, champagne importers began to do something which would cement champagne as the drink of choice for celebrations – particularly New Year’s Eve. 

By the first decade of the 20th century many French restaurants, on New Year’s Eve, took a deal: if they instituted a policy of “champagne only” after 9 p.m, and saved the corks from every bottle opened, the wine importer would “buy back” the corks from restaurant owners for a handsome sum. The strategy worked - “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.”

And, for the 100 years since, champagne has been the drink of New Year’s Eve - all thanks to a cork "buy back" scheme.