Happy Birthday Marine: History of the Marine Corps Ball

Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brian Burdett.

The annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball is a celebration of Marine Corps history and traditions. There are many of them when it comes to the Marine Corps. It represents where the Marine Corps started, back in Tun Tavern in 1775, and where it is now with some of the most highly trained US Marines and technology; while giving us a glimpse of the past, present and future.  Throughout the globe on 10 November, US Marines celebrate the birth of their Marine Corps — the most loyal, feared, revered, and professional fighting force the world has ever known without exception.

In the year 1921, the 13th Commandant, Gen. John A. Lejeune, issued Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921 which has been indoctrinated into the US Marines Corps to this day.  Gen. Lejeune’s order summarized the history, mission, heritage and tradition of the Marine Corps.  It further directed that the order be read to all Marines each year on 10 November to honor the founding of the Marine Corps.  Soon after, Marine commands all over the world began to not only honor the birthday, but to truly celebrate it.  In 1923 the Marine Barracks at Ft. Mifflin, Pennsylvania staged a formal dance and the rest is history.  In addition, the Marines at the Washington Navy Yard arranged a mock battle on the parade ground which caught many a passerby off guard. At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the US Marines have maintained control over sovereign US territory, the Marine baseball team played a Cuban team and won with a score of 9 to 8 which was no small feat. But this was only the beginning and the stuff of legends.

General John A. Lejeune (1867-1942). Gen. Lejeune, who served more than 40 years in the Marine Corps, was Commandant of the Marine Corps from June 1920 to March 1929. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The first “formal” Birthday Ball and ceremony took place in Philadelphia, PA in 1925.  Honored guests included the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Secretary of War (known today as the Secretary of Defense or SECDEF), and a host of statesmen and elected officials from Congress.  Prior to the Ball, Gen. Lejeune unveiled a memorial plaque at Tun Tavern, which sadly is no longer standing but the plaque is which has been the birthplace of the Marine Corps since the beginning.  Then the entourage headed for the Benjamin Franklin Hotel for an evening of celebration and regale.

Over the years the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball grew, taking on a life of its own.  In 1952, Commandant Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr. formalized the cake-cutting ceremony which is a party of the ceremony that so many look forward to and other traditional observances.  Current Marine Corps policy mandates that the first piece of cake must be presented to the oldest U.S. Marine present and passed to the youngest Marine representing the passing of tradition from generation to generation.  This is everything to do with the US Marine Corps and how it has always looked at the past for guidance and leadership passing down from generation to generation the bravery, learning and knowledge that every Marine can tap into which hons their skills and understanding making each one a better US Marine. We all are better for the understanding on how we work together whether in battle or simply cutting a cake. These things matter to all US Marines. Among the many such mandates is the reading of the Commandant’s birthday message to the Corps.  Part of the ceremony and not to be missed. Like the U.S. Marine Corps itself, the annual Birthday Ball has evolved from modest origins to the dignified function it is today.  On 10 November, regardless of where Marines are stationed or deployed, you will always hear “Happy Birthday Marine.” This is a resounding call to our connection we have to one another as United States Marines.

Are you attending this year’s Ball?

What You Need to Know

First things first, if you received an invitation from a US Marine your answer should be “absolutely yes.”

I’ll make an exception if you’ve already got plans to be out of the country on that day and travelling to the Bahamas, Hawaii or some other tropical destination with an infinite choice of drinks and an open bar (and if so you may want to consider changing those plans).

It’s a big honor to be invited to a Marine Corps Ball and they’re usually a great time with everything one can hope from a ceremony on this level. No your high school prom doesn’t even get close.

The Marine Corps Birthday is one of the few ways for a non US Marine to catch a glimpse into the traditions, culture and heritage of the Marine Corps. Whoever invited you would likely be disappointed if you said no. This is their way of life for the moment and it is no small thing to ask or be asked to attend this wonderful event.

Attending a Marine Corps Birthday Ball is an exciting honor for Belleau Woodsmen and guests who aren’t going for their first time.

But if you’re brand new to this you’re probably worrying about what to expect and for good reason.

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

While the event is heavy on tradition, most protocol rules apply to service members and US Marines. There are no firm etiquette rules for military spouses and dates other than general politeness and common sense. To be used at all times. So get out that playbook or refer to any cliff notes you may have about attending a State Dinner and short of watching a few Youtube videos (can go a long way) make sure to get a fast and hard education into attending a party the likes of which you have never seen.

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. See our leadership did have some balls!

Soon afterwards, the first recruiting office opened up in Tun Tavern, Philadelphia.

Yes, the Marine Corps was born in a bar. And are we ever proud of that little fact.

Each year Marines — whether active duty, reserve, or veterans — gather to celebrate the USMC Birthday on or around November 10. It is held all over the world.

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. There is a lot of coordination when it comes to planning the ball and each USMC Ball Committee has a variety of things they must do in order to improvise, overcome and adapt for the event. For active duty units, the Ball may be held a month or two early or late depending on deployment schedule. Just one of the many things to be considered when planning.

So the answer about when the Ball will be (like with many other things in life) is that it depends. That is just the plain truth of it.

Expect it to be in the first few weeks of November, but confirm the specifics with the individual unit, VFW, MWR, 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:

  1. The”official” cocktail hour
  2. The ceremony
  3. Dinner
  4. Opening the dance floor. Let’s see how you step.
  5. Storming local establishments. The after party.

What To Wear To A USMC Ball

Military balls are formal events, which means your US Marine will be wearing his or her dress blues. The uniform that is vastly superior to any other (yes we are biased) Female spouses and dates should wear formal dresses that are either floor length or fall just below the knee. Being professional doesn’t mean overdoing it and showing off. It is about having fun but in a USMC world where professionalism and dignity are most important.

Remember to keep it classy. Don’t show too much skin or wear sheer fabrics (We would love it don’t get us wrong but this isn’t the time nor the place). And you’ll want to apply good judgment to hair and makeup choices as well. Common sense goes a long way.

Male spouses and dates should wear a dressy suit and tie. A tuxedo is not a requirement, but guests may wear one if preferred. Classy is always good.

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 but if you get a chance to experience it then it can be fun and enjoy it for what it represents.

The fact that every Ball I attended had 500+ guests probably explains the omission of receiving lines. The hours are ticking for sure.

There’s no way a guest of honor wants to shake 500 hands or spend two hours standing around doing so. Particularly when he/she could be swapping war stories over beers or glasses of whiskey. We all know we are here for the drinks and the party, right?

But in case there is one — maybe for a small Ball at a Marine Security Guard Detachment (MSG) or similar command — here’s what you’ll need to know.

Navigating the Receiving Line

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. You may hear a lot of Sir or Ma’am but get into this because it comes from centuries of training, respect and honor.

That person will then introduce you to the next person in line, who is usually the guest of honor. Keep good eye contact. It is important.

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. Ofte the US Marine you are with may have never met the level of officers you will see at the receiving line but enjoy the moment and let your Marine enjoy it with you.

Don’t carry a drink with you in the receiving line. And if you’re wearing gloves, remove the right glove for shaking hands. It’s a ll about courtesy.

Handling The Cocktail Hour

Marine Corps Birthday Balls will normally be at large hotels or convention centers. USMC Birthday Ball committees have done a lot of checking. researching to make the venue special for its guests. The general rule is to have either a formal or informal cocktail hour before the Ball begins. Maintain poise and space your drinks about. This isn’t about getting drunk at a professional affair like this.

Informal get-togethers and drink-ups in the hotel room of someone who’s staying at the Ball location usually precede the cocktail hour. The tailgaters are fun but don’t allow thing to get out of control.

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 typically better than what you could find out in and around 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. It was a joke!

I’m not saying you should BYO to the cocktail hour, but I’m also not saying you shouldn’t. Have fun and do it with style.

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. Except on the one occasion when the hotel staff was a former Staff Sergeant but that is a whole different story.

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. Words of advice and do heed them.

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. Missing the cake cutting ceremony would catch the eyes of the wrong folks.

I’ve been to Balls where they just plain didn’t allow guests to leave the ballroom once the ceremony started. So plan well. Plan well.

The Marine Corps Birthday Ball Ceremony

The Marine Ball ceremony is the most important part of the evening. It stands at the center of all functions on this wonderful evening. It’s a commemoration of the history of the Marine Corps and includes speeches from the unit commander and the guest of honor and an experience in US Marine history and tradition.

Next will come a reading of the traditional birthday message from General Lejeune as well as the current Commandant of the US 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. The cake is worth coming to the ball for just to see.

The ceremony lasts about an hour and involves a great deal of standing up and sitting back down. Sounds like Sunday morning for some. 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. And don;t be louder than anyone else. Clinging glasses might be heard but don;t be the one to start it.

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 and a lot of expense.

Be sure to maintain a positive attitude even if you don’t really have a clue what’s going on with the ceremony. Watch and learn.

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. It is a great time to get to meet and find out who is seated at your table. Do not be shy and greet them earnestly and with the intent of enjoying each other’s company.

I can assure you that the average Marine doesn’t have a clue about the correct etiquette for utensils. It’s ok to go with the flow.

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. Please pay attention to this small fact about bathroom runs.

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. Talk about things you can all agree on and keep it light. This isn’t the place nor the time to be Mr and Mrs. Right About Everything. Just enjoy.

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. Have fun above all things.

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 but have fun. Hell yeah!

After The Marine Corps Ball

At some point in the evening the hotel will want to rid itself of all the battalions of US Marines overrunning its ballroom before they break all the plates and steal anything valuable that’s not bolted down. Kidding aside the first leg of this evening but there is still more in store. Here is where we find those admin types and supply experts to be the most handy.

Marines and guests who are still ambulatory and upright will usually make their way to another alcohol-serving establishment for the night. You know the local watering hole and bar.

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 hoping for one filled in a target rich environment.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be in a place like downtown San Diego and the Gas Lamp District or Waikiki. There, you’ll find dozens of options within walking or crawling 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 or be forced to hike or ask a friend for a ride.

Other Things To Remember

US 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. Monitor the activity. 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. Its respect all around.
  • Some military balls include a souvenir such as a commemorative wine glass or coin (and we have a great suggestion where to find them). Don’t raid the tables and grab the center pieces 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. Take the high road.

Marine Corps Birthday Ball: Etiquette Do’s & Dont’s

The Birthday Ball without a doubt is one of the largest events on the Marine Corps military calendar. It is one day that without question honors the history, heritage and accomplishments of the United States Marine Corps in such a way that it brings all US Marines together. Of all the US military branches that celebrate a birthday the Marine Corps does it intensely and with military style and gusto. It is a chance to get dressed to the nines with Marine Corps Class A uniform, enjoy an evening of tradition, and celebrate the history of the Marine Corps. 

As the Marine Corps Ball is a very formal affair with US Marines donning and regaling in their pristine uniforms with brass shining and chevrons brightening the mood around, both US Marines and their guests are expected to behave appropriately and with honor and follow rules of proper etiquette. It is a first class event and US Marines take it seriously. If you are attending the Marine Corps Ball for the first time or even if this isn’t your first time at this event there is no question you are sure to have many questions running through your head. What should you wear? How should you behave? What does ‘proper etiquette’ mean anyway? How do you address enlisted and officers and any of the multitude of traditions that go back for over a century.

  • Do wear something appropriate for the occasion. A gown, a tux and a Class A uniform makes the Marine Corps Ball stylish, professional and memorable. One way to choose an outfit for the Marine Corps birthday ball is to base it on the military uniform your service member is wearing. As Marines will be wearing their Dress Blues female guests should select a floor length gown to match the formality and style of the dress uniform. Attending male guests should wear a suit and tie or tuxedo appropriately.
  • Do be respectful of tradition. One of the highlights and central to the the evening is the ceremony.  Lasting for about one hour and involves a cake cutting ceremony with some cakes bordering on legend both in size and detail often never missing the Eagle Globe and Anchor, speeches such as the reading of General John A Lejeune’s USMC birthday message, and a birthday message from the current Commandant of the Marine Corps. Before this ceremony begins it is best if you are already seated and like any special event it is both polite and expected that you refrain from the use of your cell phone with no texting, calls or similar activity. Because Marine Corps birthday balls are held all over the world each venue may have specific rules they adhere to such as the taking of photos. It is best to ask about any specific rules your ball may have while you are attending to ensure you are in line with ceremony expectations. While photography during the ceremony may be allowed at some Balls, please check to ensure it’s acceptable at your event.
  • Don’t drink more than you can handle. Common sense rules are pretty important like this one. While the Birthday Ball is intended to be a fun occasion and drinking is often involved it is still a professional event for Marines and must be approached with this in mind. Give yourself a limit for the number of drinks and understand what you can and should do and be sure to space them out throughout the evening. A lot of nonsense is not appreciated and looks bad by United States Marine commands. If you do decide to drink, create a plan in advance to ensure you are able to get home safely. Get a Lyft, Uber or ask a friend but don’t make foolish decisions.
  • Do be polite. Always remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and address others as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. This is how it is done in the US Marines and at the Marine Corps birthday ball nothing changes. Pay the US Marines respect by being a guest and understanding how things work for the evening.
  • Do remember to have fun. The Marine Corps has a proud and illustrious history. The US Marines birthday goes all the way back to 1775 and is one year older than the United States so it has a long and honorable history. While it is important to be on your best behavior at the Ball don’t forget the purpose of the evening; to celebrate the Corps and all of its accomplishments. Marines honor those in attendance as well as those that could not be there and the occasional empty chair that honors those who could not attend. The US Marine Corps is a brotherhood and sisterhood without exception and everything has meaning, is treated with respect and held to the highest ideals and levels of performance. Designed to honor the birthday of the USMC it is intended to have fun at but within the scope and US Marine doctrine and professionalism. Semper Fidelis.

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