First things first, if you received an invitiation your answer should be “yes.”

I’ll make an exception if 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.

The Birthday is 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.

While the event is heavy on tradition, most protocol rules apply to 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.

First Things First: When Is The Marine Corps Birthday Ball?

The official Marine Corps Birthday is November 10, 1775 — that’s the date on which a Continental Congress resolution directed that two battalions of Marines be raised.  Soon afterwards, the first recruiting office opened up in Tun Tavern, Philadelphia.  Yes, the Marine Corps was born in a bar.

Each year Marines — whether active, reserve, or veterans — gather to celebrate the USMC Birthday on or around November 10.

A unit’s Birthday Ball may or may not occur on the actual Birthday. It could be a few days on either side depending on where the weekend falls, when ballrooms are available, and so forth. For active duty units, the Ball may be held a month or two early or late depending on deployment schedule.

So the answer about when the Ball will be (like with many other things in life) is that it depends.  Expect it to be in the first few weeks of November, but confirm the specifics with the individual unit, VFW, Marine Corps League, or other organization hosting the ball.

Sequence of Events

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

The cocktail hour

The ceremony


Opening the dance floor

Storming local establishments

What To Wear To A USMC 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 sheer fabrics. And you’ll want to 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 a requirement, but guests may wear one if preferred.

Handling The Cocktail Hour

Birthday Balls will normally be at large hotels or convention centers. The general rule is to have either a formal or informal cocktail hour before the Ball begins.  Informal get-togethers and drink-ups in the hotel room of someone who’s staying at the Ball location usually precede the cocktail hour.  At a large hotel the cocktail hour will usually be in the common areas between the ballrooms. There, you should 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 never arrived at a cocktail hour with my dress blue trouser pockets bulging from tallboy cans in my efforts to minimize Ball costs.  I’m not saying you should BYO to the cocktail hour, but I’m also not saying you shouldn’t.  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.

Finishing Up With The Cocktail Hour

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. 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.

The Marine Corps Birthday Ball 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.  Next will come a 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

The ceremony lasts about an hour and involves a great deal of standing up and sitting back down. Just 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 don’t chat with others at your table or play 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 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.

I can assure you that the average Marine doesn’t have a clue about the correct etiquette for utensils.  If you ignored my advice about going to the bathroom before the ceremony, the start of dinner will be your chance. You can 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 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. 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 may 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.

After The Marine Corps Ball

At some point in the evening the hotel will want to rid itself of all the Marines overrunning its ballroom before they break all the plates and steal anything valuable that’s not bolted down.  Marines and guests who are still ambulatory will usually make their way to another alcohol-serving establishment for the night.  Normally that’ll be 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, you’ll be in a place like downtown San Diego or Waikiki. There, you’ll find dozens of options within walking distance.  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 may not have any options beyond the on-site hotel bars.  Remember  to  know  your  limits  and  keep  it  classy  in  order  to  avoid  ruining  such  a  memorable  night.

Other Things To Remember

Marines and their guests are encouraged to have a blast at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. 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 polite to those you encounter.

Some military balls include a souvenir such as a commemorative wine glass or coin. Don’t raid the tables at the end of the night for extra souvenirs until you’re absolutely sure that whoever was sitting at that seat doesn’t want them.