Just pour me bubbles, darling

Peace on earth and mercy mild probably aren't on most people's Christmas shopping lists this year - not if they're realistic.

Hell, most of us won't even manage peace on hearth, and, if we do, alcohol will have more to do with it than the milk of human kindness. But if this is the most paradoxical of festivals - the religious holiday celebrated avidly by atheists, the story of humble beginnings lauded with a binge on gifts, the dream of life eternal distilled into a day of overeating and liver damage - then perhaps it's appropriate that most of us will spend at least part of it quaffing the most contradictory of drinks.

I love champagne: its decadent elegance, breathy nip and the bubbles that ensure, as George Farquhar put it, that it "puns and quibbles in the glass". The cork's pop is like the applause that greets a conductor before he has lifted his baton - it shouts anticipation - while those bubbles seem to carbonate excitement and release it into a room.

There are better wines but none, I think, more exciting.

Fizz for a king

It's a common partiality. The gourmet André Simon opened a bottle at 11 every morning; the legendary chef Fernand Point liked to start his day with a glass and end it the same way. Madame Bollinger famously drank it not at all, except at every conceivable point during the day and when she was thirsty. Chekhov sipped it on his deathbed and Keynes died regretting he hadn't sipped more of it. Still, champagne is an odd product. This is the posh drink that everyone consumes, the artisanal beverage with the huge brands. (It's possible, in fact, that branding as we know it began when buyers wearied of cheap but substandard bubbly that, as one vintner put it, "offends the head and stomach, torments the guts, and is apt to cause loosenesses and . . . barrenness in women", and started to look for a label they could trust.)

Louis XIV adored it, and our Charles II brought it back to rinse his Restoration of Puritanical grime; yet their more refined courtiers referred to it contemptuously as saute-bouchon (jump-cork) - a novelty product for those with princely wallets but peasant tastes. And the final contradiction is that the fizz was never supposed to be there at all. The legendary 17th-century vintner monk Dom Pérignon worked hard to ensure that his wine was as still as possible - no easy task, when yeasts attack the sugar in the grapes and create carbonation as soon as the weather warms up. Bubbles were so uncontrollable that many bottles exploded en route, yet still the foreign orders flooded in. (Mostly from us, of course. Some things never change.)

Pop culture

But, despite these problems, we now consider a celebration incomplete without the stuff. Indeed, we are all champagne socialists now. How did that happen?

I subscribe to the Fred and Ginger theory of popularity: the bubbles give it sex appeal, the consistency gives it class. One of Pérignon's innovations was blending - different grapes, different vineyards - to try to achieve a product that did not change from year to year. Champagne houses still invest great care in their blend of any or all of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, the three permitted grapes; in fact, my definition of a really good champagne is one that tastes nice flat. (Bollinger, Taittinger and Krug do, but if you want to be a better champagne socialist, buy small-grower champagnes: Egly-Ouriet, Jacques Selosse and R H Coutier are all great.) Those unwanted bubbles, meanwhile, add sass and danger, confusing tongue and brain.

So champagne is at once contradictory and consistent, bubbling rebelliously - but reliably. And isn't that the best of all worlds: a bit of excitement, but comfortingly regulated and contained? The powerful will always want to believe that foment can be controlled, while the weak cherish the delusion that power (or at least, class) can be bottled and bought. Arguably, we should aim to avoid kidding ourselves at this point in the seasonal and economic cycle, but that's hard at a time of year when we plant fake trees in our living rooms and gull children that a whiskery fat fellow is going to come down the chimney with treats. If popping champagne can shush these oppositions, then by all means pour another glass. There'll always be another bubble, but a bottle is the only place where they burst for the common good.

Nina Caplan is arts editor of Time Out