On The Yard


    Traditions and Ceremonies: Honoring the U.S. Marine Corps Birthday

    By Bill the Goat on November 1, 2023

    Traditions and Ceremonies: Honoring the U.S. Marine Corps Birthday

    Happy 248th birthday, United States Marine Corps! You maintain your reputation as the premier elite fighting force in the world, and it’s time to celebrate your accomplishments and what your service has meant to so many over the years. With such a long and wide-reaching history, celebrations of institutions like this often pick up unique traditions along the way—and the birthday party that occurs every year throughout the country on November 10th is no exception. Before we take a look at some of these special events, let’s see how it all began.


    The Birth of the U.S. Marine Corps

    On November 10, 1775, the U.S. Marine Corps was officially established by the Second Continental Congress to raise two battalions of Continental Marines to support and strengthen U.S. naval forces in the Revolutionary War. On this date, Captain Samuel Nicholas named Tun Tavern, a popular tavern and brewery on Water Street in Philadelphia, as recruitment headquarters. Although the building is long gone, a marker still claims the spot as the Marines’ official birthplace, and Tun Tavern still features in Marine Corps celebrations. 


    Although they succeeded in the war, when it ended so, too, did the Marine’s first tenure. They were no longer needed and there was not a budget to support the group—until July 11, 1798, when Congress created the “United States Marine Corps,” and President John Adams approved a bill for an organization that would fall under the Secretary of the Navy. 


    Henceforth, the July 11th date was their celebrated birthday, named “Marine Corps Day,” from 1799 until 1921; then it was moved to November 10th to recognize their original founding for the Revolutionary War. 


    The Birth of the Birthday Party

    Prior to 1921, there are no records of parties, ceremonies, or pageants celebrating the USMC birthday. That changed when Major Edwin McClellan, officer-in-charge, Historical Section, Headquarters Marine Corps, sent a memo to Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune on October 21, 1921, recommending the birthday be shifted to November and celebrated with a Washington DC “Birthday Ball” dinner including prominent men from the Marine Corps, Army, and Navy and descendants of the Revolution. Then on  November 1, 1921, Major General Lejeune issued Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921, an order that encompassed the rich history, mission, and tradition of the Corps. It directed that his penned birthday message be read to every command on November 10th each subsequent year to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday. And it has.


    To this day, November 10th is a day of great celebration and fanfare across the world, brimming with parades, drill team performances, exhibits, speeches, and more. Over the years, various commands have embraced the celebrations and added their own twists. For instance, the 1923 party at Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania, recognized the 148th birthday with a barracks dance. At the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. Marines staged a fake 20-minute battle for spectators on the parade ground.


    It wasn’t until 1925 that the proposed USMC Birthday Ball was brought to life, with the attendance of secretaries of war and Navy, Major General Commandant Lejeune, famous statesmen and soldiers, and sailors, who met where it all began, placing a gifted tablet from the Thomas Roberts Reath Post, American Legion, all Marines—at the site of Tun Tavern. They planned for this ceremony to coincide with the annual convention of the Marine Corps League and orchestrated a parade with Marines, Army and Navy detachments, the National Guard, and other military organizations. Then they finished off the day with a banquet at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel and a ball at the Bellevue-Stratford. 


    Forging Important Traditions

    They also cut a large cake that night in Washington, DC, at the Birthday Ball. This tradition harkens back at least as far as a Marine Barracks party in Washington, DC, in 1937, perhaps even prior to that. That night there was an open house, where Major General Thomas Holcomb, the Commandant presided. The cake was an enormous rendition of the Tun Tavern shape. After this event, the celebrations took off; buoyed by motion pictures, newsreels, and displays that extolled the Corps' long history. 


    A Birthday Ball Pageant entered the scene at the Marine Corps headquarters in 1951, although there was mention of one in Salt Lake City, Utah, several years prior. Then on 28 October 1952, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., directed all future Marine Corps Birthday celebrations to be formalized with a cake ceremony and other standardized events. On January 26, 1956, these orders were approved in the Marine Corps Drill Manual.


    There are additional traditions that the parties follow. The cake is cut with the Mameluke sword, named for its similarity to Ottoman warrior swords and carried by Marines since Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon’s assault of Derna, Tripoli, in 1805. It reminds all present that the Marines “are a band of warriors, committed to carrying the sword, so that our nation may live in peace.” 


    The first piece of cake goes to the guest of honor, whether it be newlyweds, the Secretary of the Navy, governors, or others. The next is given to the oldest Marine present, and the third to the youngest Marine present. When the oldest Marine receives the second piece, they turn and symbolically pass it to the youngest, representing the passing of experience and knowledge to the younger members and the importance of taking care of younger Marines. Each group runs the party a little differently, but all still adhere to Major General Lejeune's wishes to read his Order Number 47, as well as the Commandant’s message, many of which you can find here.


    Related: Forging Leaders: The Path to Becoming a Marine Corps Officer Through the Naval Academy 


    Happy 248th Birthday, Marines! 

    At the Naval Academy, we are excited to celebrate the U.S. Marine Corps and all they have accomplished on November 10th Do you have your Marine Corps gear? You can find it at Navyonline.com. Your purchase, as well as your shopping on the Yard, dining on the Yard, and USNA tours give their proceeds to the Brigade of Midshipmen, so you’re supporting future Marine Corps officers during their time at the Academy. Funds go to make extracurricular activities such as cultural arts, theater, music, club sports, and more possible. Come visit and celebrate the 248th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. It’s going to be historic!


    Take a Tour

    Bill the Goat
    Written by Bill the Goat | November 1, 2023


    Are you a true USNA fan?

    Don’t miss out! Subscribe to get the latest “On The Yard” news and insights!