by Eric Montgomery September 06, 2018

Let's imagine you've been invited to attend the 2018 Marine Corps Birthday Ball— and it will be your first one.

Marine Corps Birthday

First things first, if you were invited your answer should be "yes" unless you've already got plans to be out of the country on that day (and if so you may want to consider changing those plans). 

It's a big honor to be invited to a Ball and they're usually fun, memorable experiences as I discussed here in my recap of my most memorable Birthday Balls— plus it's one of the few ways for an outsider to get a glimpse into the traditions and culture of the Marine Corps. Whoever invited you would likely be disappointed if you said no.

Attending a Marine Corps Birthday Ball is an exciting honor for Belleau Woodsmen and guests who aren't first-timers, but if you're new to this you’re probably worrying about what to expect.

This blog post will answer whatever questions you have in advance of attending your first USMC Birthday Ball.

While the event is heavy on tradition, most protocol rules are reserved for service members. There are no firm etiquette rules for military spouses and dates other than general politeness and common sense. Still, there are a few things you should know before attending the Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Sequence of Events

Birthday Balls will generally follow a sequence similar to what you see in the following list:

  1. The cocktail hour
  2. The ceremony
  3. Dinner
  4. Opening the dance floor
  5. Storming local establishments 

What To Wear To A Military Ball

Military balls are formal events, which means your Marine will be wearing his or her dress blues. Female spouses and dates should wear formal dresses that are either floor length or fall just below the knee.

Remember to keep it classy. Don’t show too much skin or wear completely sheer fabrics, and apply good judgment to hair and makeup choices as well. Male spouses and dates should wear a dressy suit and tie— a tuxedo is not required, but guests are free to wear one if preferred.  

How To Handle A Receiving Line

This tradition is more of an "in olden times" practice these days  I can't recall going through a receiving line at any Marine Corps Birthday Balls that I attended.

The fact that every Ball I attended had at least 500 guests probably has something to do with the omission of receiving lines...there's no way a guest of honor wants to shake 500 hands or spend two hours standing around doing so when he/she would rather be swapping war stories over beers or glasses of whiskey.

But in case there is one — maybe at a smaller Ball hosted by a Marine Security Guard Detachment or similar command — here's a rundown of what you'll need to know.

Before the ceremony, dinner and dancing, guests usually visit the receiving line for formal introductions. Fortunately, your Marine will take the lead, introducing you to the first person in line.

That person will then introduce you to the next person in line, who is usually the guest of honor.

Shake their hand and offer a polite greeting. Then continue down the line, allowing your Marine to introduce you to high‐ranking officers and their guests.

Don’t carry a drink with you in the receiving line, and if you’re wearing gloves, remove the right glove for shaking hands. 

Handling The Cocktail Hour

Birthday Balls are normally held at hotels or convention centers, so the general rule is to have either a formal or informal cocktail hour before the Ball begins...and those are usually preceded by informal get-togethers and drink-ups in the hotel room of a friend who's staying at the Ball location.

If you're at a large hotel the cocktail hour will usually be held either at an on-site bar or in the lobby/common areas between the ballrooms, where you should be able to find a few portable bars set up and serving beer, wine, and mixed drinks.

Prices at the cash bar will be better than what you could find out in town, but I'd be lying if I said I've never showed up to a cocktail hour with my dress blue trouser pockets bulging from tallboy cans in my efforts to keep Ball costs under control.

While that sort of behavior is probably frowned upon by leadership of most units  and by decent human beings in general — the worst that is likely to happen if you get caught would be for hotel staff to ask you to get rid of your BYO stash. 

But the most important things about the cocktail hour are to ensure that (a) you get a refill on your drink when they make the first call to take your seats for the ceremony and (b) you make a last-minute bathroom trip before heading to your table. 

I cannot emphasize (b) enough, particularly if you've been maintaining a vigorous pace during the cocktail hour.

The ceremony will likely go on for nearly an hour, and you do NOT want to be the guest trying to sneak out of the ballroom for an emergency sprint to the bathroom during one of the formal parts of the ceremony. I've been to Balls where they just plain didn't allow guests to leave the ballroom once the ceremony started. 

What To Do During The Ceremony

The Marine Ball ceremony is the most important part of the evening. It’s a commemoration of the history of the Corps and includes speeches from the unit commander and the guest of honor, reading of the traditional birthday message from General Lejeune as well as the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a formal cake‐cutting ceremony in which a piece of cake is presented to the guest of honor followed by the oldest and youngest Marines present.

Marine Corps Birthday Cake Cutting

Photo Credit LCpl Jack Rigsby

The ceremony lasts about an hour and involves a great deal of standing up and sitting back down. You can easily take your cues from the rest of the attendees and sit and stand when they do, repeat toasts when you hear them, and so forth.

It’s important to be respectful during the ceremony, so refrain from chatting with others at your table or playing on your phone. An incredible amount of effort goes into the planning of such an affair, so be sure to maintain a positive attitude even if you don't really have a clue what's going on with the ceremony. 

What To Do During Dinner

The dinner portion of the evening isn’t as formal as the ceremony — you won’t need to worry about which fork to use or hold your glass a certain way, because I can assure you that the average Marine doesn't have a clue about the correct etiquette for utensils.

If you failed to follow my earlier advice about going to the bathroom right before the ceremony, the start of the dinner will be your chance to make a bathroom trip and also stop by the bar for a refill if needed. 

The dinner is a perfect time to get to know others at your table and make small talk, but — just like any other situation in which you're meeting new people in a somewhat professional setting — it’s usually best to avoid serious topics of discussion like politics and religion.

It’s important to make a good impression on the other guests — or at the very least, not a terrible impression — because you'll probably see the same people at the ball again next year. 

Rules For The Dance Floor

If your ballroom dancing skills are rusty or nonexistent, don’t worry — dancing at military balls is usually modern in style with a DJ playing current hits and classic dance favorites.

Marines are allowed to let loose on the dance floor, so feel free to enjoy yourself and bust a (somewhat respectful) move. In other words, maintain your sense of modesty and avoid any dance styles that you’d be embarrassed to perform in front of your grandma.

Post-Ball

At some point in the evening the hotel is going to want to rid itself of all the Marines overrunning its ballroom before they break all the glasses and plates and steal anything valuable that's not bolted down.

Marines and guests who are still upright and ambulatory will usually make their way to another local establishment that serves alcohol to close out the night...or one that is likely to have a lot of young single women, since plenty of junior Marines will fly solo to the Ball then try to find a post-Ball date.

If you're lucky, your Ball is in a place like downtown San Diego or Waikiki where there are dozens of options within a short Uber ride. But if your Ball is at a resort or a casino that's not in the middle of a city like Las Vegas or Reno, your options may be limited to the on-site hotel bars. 

Other Things To Remember

Marines and their guests are encouraged to have a blast at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, but here are some other ways to ensure you’re a respectful guest:

● Don’t drink too much. Some balls offer open bars, which makes it easy to overdo it on the alcohol. Limit your consumption to avoid embarrassing yourself or your Marine. 
● Basic social courtesies apply -- say "please" and "thank you," and while you don't need to address other guests as "Sir" or "Ma’am" your host would probably appreciate it if you're
● Some military balls include a souvenir such as a commemorative wine glass or coin, but don’t raid the tables at the end of the night for souvenirs that were left behind until you're absolutely sure that they aren't already claimed by whoever was sitting at that seat. 

One last suggestion: Bring your Marine a gift

2018 Marine Corps Birthday Ball gifts

Marines tend to love beer, and they also tend to love large caliber ammunition — so it's no surprise that our .50 Caliber Bottle Openers have earned a spot on our list of best Marine Corps gifts and in our lineup of Birthday Ball gifts. 

We've got a full line of Marine Corps Birthday gifts available in a variety of colors and finishes in honor of the Corps’ 243rd Birthday.

With optional custom engraving and a personalized gift box, these officially licensed USMC bottle openers will be appreciated and used for years to come.

And as a reminder, we donate 15% of our annual profits to veteran charities — so by supporting our company you're supporting the mission of organizations like the Marine Raider Foundation.

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Did we forget any bits of advice for first-time Birthday Ball guests? Post your suggestions in the comments.

Eric Montgomery
Eric Montgomery

Born and raised in Cary, NC, Eric graduated from the US Naval Academy in 2004. He served as a Marine Corps infantry officer for 7 years before joining Bullets2Bandages in 2012 and launching Groomsmen Central in 2017.


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