Let’s imagine that you’re hoping to attend the 2020 Marine Corps Birthday Ball — and it will be your first one.
First things first, your answer should be “yes.” I may make an exception if you’ve already got plans to be out of the country on that day. Even so you may want to consider changing those plans.
It’s a big honor to receive an invitation to a Ball and they’re usually fun, memorable experiences as I discussed here. 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 may be worrying about what to expect.
Read on and we’ll answer whatever questions you have before attending your first USMC Birthday Ball.
While the event is heavy on tradition, most protocol rules apply only to service members. If you’re a spouse, date, or guest, just stick to general politeness and common sense.
Still, there are a few things you should know before attending the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. We’ll cover some upfront questions before going into everything else.
When Is The Marine Corps Birthday Ball?
The birthday of the Marine Corps is November 10, 1775. On that date the Continental Congress authorized the formation of two battalions of Marines for service during the Revolutionary War.
Marines traditionally celebrate the USMC Birthday on or around November 10 of each year. It’s not unusual for a unit to hold its Birthday Ball a few days before or after the 10th. Hotel availability and when the weekend falls can shift things one way or another..
Occasionally, units will hold their birthday celebration a month (or more) before or after the actual date. The most common reason for that approach is if the unit is on deployment during the actual birthday. They’ll still have a small, informal ceremony overseas as conditions allow, but they’ll save the big one for home.
Where Is The Marine Corps Birthday Ball?
Every unit hosts its own Ball so there’s no single “official” Ball for any given area. The Commandant’s Ball in Washington, D.C. would qualify as the main one. But unfortunately it’s not open to non-HQMC Marines.
If you’re looking for a nearby birthday ball, check out the full list of USMC units here. You can sort by location to see if any major units are near you.
If you don’t live near a big base like Camp Lejeune or Cherry Point or Camp Pendleton, find the nearest recruiting station.
There are six Marine Corps Recruiting Districts (list here) scattered around the country.
- 1st District covers the northeast
- 4th District stretches from the mid-Atlantic to Michigan
- 6th District is in the southeast US
- 8th District covers the southwest and Rocky Mountains
- 9th District hits most of the Midwest states
- 12th District is on the west coast
Each of those districts has eight recruiting stations in a major city. So there is a good chance you can find a recruiting station within a few hours of you.
Click on any of the links above and you’ll be able to view the stations under each district.
You may also be able to find a reserve unit that has its headquarters near you. They will most likely host a ball as well.
Other possibilities are NROTC units at universities, Marine Corps League detachments (find one here), VFWs, and American Legion posts.
Most balls occur near each unit’s primary base. Unfortunate souls at places like 29 Palms often travel to a desirable spot like Las Vegas, San Diego, or Los Angeles.
How Do I Get An Invitation To a Marine Corps Birthday Ball?
Active duty units typically limit attendance to their personnel and guests. So unless you’ve got a connection to the unit, you’ll probably have a hard time getting in.
Reserve units and recruiting stations are more likely to welcome outside guests due to their status as being parts of local communities.
I recommend contacting their offices by phone or email to see if they have tickets available to guests. (Strong recommendation: call the family readiness officer, marketing manager, or public information phone number rather than the CO or Sergeant Major).
Marine Corps League, VFW, or American Legion Birthday Balls are much more likely to be open to anyone who wants to buy a ticket. You may or may not have to be a detachment/post member to attend, though, so you’ll need to contact the local organization to confirm.
Sequence of Events
Birthday Balls will generally follow the below sequence:
- The cocktail hour
- The ceremony
- Opening the dance floor
- 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. Women should wear formal dresses that are either floor length or fall below the knee.
Remember to keep it classy. Don’t show too much skin or wear see-through fabrics. Apply good judgment to hair and makeup choices as well.
Men should wear a dressy suit and tie. A tuxedo is not mandatory, but guests are free to wear one.
How To Handle A Receiving Line
This tradition is more of an “in olden times” practice these days. I can’t recall ever going through a receiving line at any Marine Corps Birthday Ball.
Every Ball I’ve attended had at least 500 guests, which would explain the omission of receiving lines. No guest of honor wants to spend two hours shaking hands when he/she could swap war stories over beers.
But in case there is one, here’s a rundown of what to expect.
Guests will visit the receiving line for formal introductions before the ceremony and dinner. 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
For Birthday Balls held at hotels or convention centers, the general practice is to have an informal cocktail hour before the Ball begins.
We always preceded those with an informal get-together in the hotel room of someone who’s staying at the Ball location.
In a large hotel the cocktail hour will take place at an on-site bar or in the lobby/common areas between the ballrooms. There, 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.
That sort of behavior will earn the disapproval of unit leadership, and of decent human beings in general. But the worst that will happen would be for hotel staff to ask you to dispose of your BYO stash.
But the most important things about the cocktail hour are to:
(a) Ensure that you get a refill on your drink when they make the first call to take your seats for the ceremony.
(b) Make a last-minute bathroom trip before heading to your table.
(c) And the obligatory warning to not obnoxiously drunk and embarrass yourself and/or your host.
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. You do NOT want to be the guest trying to make an emergency sprint to the bathroom during the formal 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 commemorates the history of the Corps.
You’ll hear speeches from the unit commander and the guest of honor followed by the traditional birthday message from General Lejeune and one from the current Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Next will be the cake‐cutting ceremony in which the CO presents a piece of cake to the guest of honor. The CO then hands a piece to the oldest and youngest Marines present.
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. Be sure to maintain a positive attitude even if you don’t 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. And you won’t need to worry about which fork to use or hold your glass a certain way. I can assure you that the average Marine doesn’t have a clue about the correct etiquette for utensils.
Did you fail 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. You can 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 — you should 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. 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 can 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 wouldn’t perform in front of your grandma.
At some point in the evening the hotel is going to want to rid itself of all the Marines overrunning its ballroom. They generally do so before the Marines break all the 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. Junior Marines who came solo are likely to end up at one that is likely to have a lot of young single women.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be in downtown San Diego or Waikiki where there are dozens of options within a short Uber ride. If your Ball is at a resort or a casino that’s not in the middle of a city like Las Vegas, you may not have options beyond the on-site hotel bars.
Other Things To Remember
Marines and their guests should have a blast at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. But here are some ways to ensure you’re a respectful guest:
- Don’t drink too much. If there’s an open bar, it’s 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.” While you don’t need to address other guests as “Sir” or “Ma’am” your host will appreciate it if you’re polite to those you encounter.
- Some military balls include a souvenir such as a commemorative wine glass or coin. Don’t raid the tables prematurely for extra souvenirs. Make absolutely sure that they aren’t already claimed by whoever was sitting at that seat.
One last suggestion: Bring your Marine a gift
Marines tend to love beer. 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 USMC gifts available in honor of the Corps’ 244th Birthday.
With optional custom engraving and a personalized gift box, these 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. 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.