By Carolann Chambers

When you’re a military family, it can be hard to hold onto traditions because you live in so many different places. One year can be so drastically different from the next. But we also get to have traditions that we never would have been a part of without the military.

The submarine birthday ball is a tradition that I look forward to each year. No matter where my husband and I are stationed, I find comfort in knowing that there will be a submarine birthday ball. I feel so honored to attend, and I always have  fun getting dressed up and spending the evening celebrating the submarine force.

It’s a wonderful evening out, but it is also a formal event steeped in years of tradition. If you’re anything like me, the idea of attending any military ball can be equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking. What are you supposed to wear? What actually happens at these things? Are you supposed to act a certain way?

Here’s everything you need to know to feel comfortable, look your best, have a great night.

What is the submarine birthday ball?

115th annual Navy Officers Submarine Birthday Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

The submarine birthday ball celebrates the anniversary of the US submarine force. On April 11, 1900, the Navy purchased its first submarine from John Philip Holland. It was named the USS Holland (SS-1) and was America’s first commissioned submarine.

When is it?

(Photo: DVIDS)

The submarine birthday ball takes place in the spring and can be any time between March and May.

When the submarine birthday ball is announced, there will usually be a Facebook page or website detailing all of the information about with information about tickets, hotel room blocks, the keynote speaker, and program.

Some bases have fundraisers in the months leading up to the ball to help offset the costs. Some bases have separate balls for enlisted submariners and officers, while others combine them.

What should I wear?

(Photo: DVIDS)

This is a great article about what to wear to a military ball and what etiquette to follow. The same advice goes for a submarine birthday ball. There will be specific instructions from the organizers of the ball telling the submariners which dress uniform to to wear.

The submarine birthday ball calls for formal attire for civilians. Since your date will be wearing their dress uniform, you want to match them and represent them well. Most women wear long gowns. Men can wear a tuxedo or a suit depending on the uniform his date is wearing.

This isn’t the time to break out your sexiest dress. This isn’t the time to push the envelope. That doesn’t mean you can’t show any skin, but use your judgment. Be comfortable in what you wear, but also remember that this is a formal military event and there will be high-ranking submariners there from your date’s command as well as retirees.

As much as I love the submarine birthday ball, and as much as I love getting dressed up, I always keep in mind that the night is not about me — it’s about my husband’s service and the submarine force. So I try to dress and act accordingly.

One perk to moving around all the time is that if you have a fabulous gown that you love, you can wear it over and over. I wore the same gown to three different submarine birthday balls–one in Washington and two in Hawaii. It fit perfectly, and I didn’t have to stress about finding a new gown or spending extra money. Win-win-win!

Another option is renting a gown. One year I rented a gown and while it worked out, I ended up spending the same amount of money that I spent this year to buy one on sale.

Some women will get their hair done and some won’t. I never feel out of place when I do my hair myself. I like to save time and money by doing it myself.

What’s cocktail hour like?

Pearl Harbor’s 116th Submarine Birthday Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

The evening begins with a cocktail hour, which is perfect for mingling, taking pictures, and, of course, having a drink. It’s a long night, though, and there will still be a formal program ahead of you, so make sure to pace yourself. You don’t want to embarrass yourself and your date before the most important part of the evening even begins.

Should I spring for pictures?

Seattle Submarine Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

At every submarine birthday ball I’ve ever attended, there has been a professional photographer taking formal pictures in front of a backdrop. You have to pay for the pictures, but they are completely optional. The line during cocktail hour can get long, but you usually can go back later–just make sure the photographer is sticking around.

Sure, the photographers take the same cheesy poses every year but to me, these pictures are so worth it. How often do you get dressed up, get to see your submariner in their dress uniform, and have a professional photographer around? Someday my husband will be retired and I know that I’ll be glad I have these pictures as a memory of his service.

What’s the formal program like?

Yokosuka Submarine Birthday Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

Once you go inside, you will have an assigned table and an assigned seat at that table.  Each submarine birthday ball is slightly different, but all of the ones I have been to have featured a few key events in the formal program.

Each base likes to do things a little different, but there is usually the Color Guard and National Anthem, the Tolling of the Boats ceremony, toasts, and a keynote speaker. There is also a multi-course dinner followed by a cake cutting ceremony. The formal program ends with the dance floor opening up. Sometimes there is a centerpiece competition  in which the submariners from each boat makes their own centerpiece.

The Tolling of the Boats is perhaps the most important part of the submarine birthday ball. The Tolling of the Boats honors those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, who still serve silently under the sea. You will be asked to stand as the names of each of the submarines lost, along with the fate of its crew, are read aloud as a ship’s bell is tolled for each in turn.

Anything else I should know?

2013 Washington, DC Area Submarine Birthday Ball
(Photo: DVIDS)

It is an honor to attend the ball, so don’t get so drunk that you have to be carried out. Have a plan for how you’re going to get home. Many times, there will be a block of hotel rooms set up so you can get a room at a discounted rate, and/or there will be shuttle buses going back to base so that you don’t have to worry about driving.

Most importantly, enjoy this special night with your date and the years of submarine tradition that run through the entire evening. It’s an event that not many people get to experience. Have fun and be yourself!