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Why Do Cruise Ships Have Godmothers?

Today’s modern cruise ships have godmothers that participate in the naming ceremony and wish them well with a champagne (traditionally) bottle break against the hull. Holland America Line has had notable godmothers such as Queens Maxima and Beatrix of the Netherlands, Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, tennis legend Chris Evert and Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin. But where did this tradition come from? This compilation of articles from Oasis Travel Network and Cruise118.com, as well as information for our own Captain Albert Schoonderbeek, provides a few thoughts on the history of godmothers.

Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, left, named Koningsdam, while Princess Margriet named Rotterdam.

Since the ancient Babylonian, Greek and Roman times, deities have been called upon to keep ships safe on the water. Nearly every world culture has a traditional ceremony to launch a new ship. While the Ottoman Empire sacrificed sheep to then feast upon, today’s passenger ships are christened by a godmother with the traditional breaking a bottle of champagne on the hull.

It is believed that a godmother brings a feminine benevolent spirit to the ship and protects the future sailings. Interestingly, in the Middle Ages women on a ship were considered bad luck and not allowed to sail on merchant or military vessels. Sailors feared a woman on board would anger the sea gods and cause bad weather and rough sailing. In fact, there were times if a woman was discovered on board a ship, she would be thrown overboard.

Marlee Matlin.

Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin christened Noordam.

In the past, it was always men who held sway over proceedings, with everyone from the ship’s captain or member of royalty to a politician, priest or religious elder responsible for sending a vessel on its way.

In the 1700s, shipbuilders began the tradition of carving the bow of the ship with a female figurehead design. Women were believed to have better eyes for navigation and also superstitiously thought to scare the sea into behaving from the sight of her nude bust at the front of a ship. However, in 18th century France, launchings and christenings were somewhat like traditional marriage ceremonies, with both a male and female participant. Just as the ship was appointed a ‘godfather’ it was also appointed a ‘godmother’ and both would say the ship’s name as the man presented the woman with flowers. So, we have possibly our first historical mention of a godmother, but still no bottle of bubbly.

That is until, the 19th century in America, when the first identified woman ‘sponsor’ was named – Miss Lavinia Fanning Watson, who was the daughter of one Philadelphia’s elite. We’re still not up to the sophistication of true champagne here, as Miss Watson was reported to have broken a bottle of water and wine over the bow of the ship in 1846. From then on, in America at least, women sponsors became increasingly more common, as did the use of christening fluid. Brandy and whiskey were both used but champagne didn’t come into real prominence until the end of the 19th century.

Actress Renée Soutendijk

Dutch Actress Renée Soutendijk is the godmother of Westerdam.

Holland America Line was one of the first to have godmothers for their ships. Our first Rotterdam in 1872 was baptized by the wife of the first captain, Capt. Hus. Our second ship to have a godmother was Maasdam, by the daughter of the second captain, Deddes. Since then all of the ships that Holland America Line has launched have had a godmother.

Members of the Dutch Royal Family have launched 11 Holland America Line vessels, including Statendam III in 1929 by Prince Hendrik and Nieuw Amsterdam in 1937 by Queen Wilhelmina. Then-Princess Beatrix named Statendam IV in 1957 and Prinses Margriet in 1964. Rotterdam V was launched in 1958 by Queen Juliana. Princess Margriet dedicated Prinsendam in 1973, Nieuw Amsterdam II in 1983, Rotterdam VI in 1997 and Oosterdam in 2003. Then-Queen Beatrix served as Eurodam’s godmother in 2008, and then-Princess Máxima was godmother to Nieuw Amsterdam in 2010. Queen Maxima of the Netherlands is godmother to Koningsdam.

Rotterdam of 1958 was christened by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.

Rotterdam of 1958 was christened by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.

By the 1980’s, we started to see the first purpose-built mega cruise ships and the growing importance put on the leisure and entertainment when it came to ship facilities began to filter through into the choice of godmothers. In 1989, screen legend Audrey Hepburn became the first big-name actress to christen a cruise ship, when she not only broke the bottle on the bow of Star Princess but sailed on her for a seven-night Caribbean cruise as well.

Holland America Line has had non-royal godmothers, as well, including Joan Lunden (Zuiderdam), actress June Allyson (Maasdam), actress Debbie Reynolds (Veendam) and Janet Lanterman, wife of former Holland America Line Chief Executive Officer Kirk Lanterman.

Today, the sacrificial smashing of a champagne bottle on the hull by the godmother is believed to impart the ship with its personality and give future sailings good luck.

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