Formal military dinners are a tradition in all branches of the United States Armed services. In the Air Force and Navy, it is the dining-in; in the Army, the Regimental Dinner; in the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, Mess Night.
As with most ancient traditions, the origin of the dining-in is not clear. Formal dinners are rooted in antiquity. From pre-Christian Roman legions, to second century Viking warlords, to King Arthur’s knights in the sixth century, feasts to honor military victories and individual and unit achievements have been a custom.
Some trace the origins of the dining-in to the old English monasteries. The custom was then taken up by the early universities and eventually adopted by the military with the advent of the officers’ mess. With the adoption of the dining-in by the military, these dinners became more formalized. British soldiers brought the custom to colonial America, where it was borrowed by George Washington’s continental army.
The Air Force dining-in custom probably began in the 1930s with General H. “Hap” Arnold’s “wing-dings.” The close bonds enjoyed by Air Corps officers and their British colleagues of the Royal Air Force during World War II surely added to the American involvement in the dining-in custom.
The dining-in has served the Air Force well as an occasion for military members to meet socially at a formal military function. It enhances the esprit de corps of units, lightens the load of demanding day-to-day work, gives the commander an opportunity to meet socially with their subordinates and enables military members of all ranks to create bonds of friendship and better working relations through an atmosphere of good fellowship.
The dining-in and dining-out represent the most formal aspects of Air Force social life. The dining-in is the traditional form, and the term will be used throughout this document. However, most of the information applies equally to both dinings-in and dinings-out.
It is important for the success of a dining-in that members enjoy the evening, and that the ceremonies are done in a tasteful, dignified manner. A dining-in should have a theme around which the decorations and ceremony are built.
The purpose of the dining-in is to bring together members of a unit in an atmosphere of camaraderie, good fellowship, and social rapport. The basic idea is to enjoy yourself and the company. The dining-in is also an excellent means of providing hail and farewell to members of a unit. It is an excellent forum to recognize individual and unit achievements. The dining-in, therefore, is very effective in building high morale and esprit de corps.
The dining-in is a formal dinner for the members of a wing, unit, or organization. Although a dining-in is traditionally a unit function, attendance by other smaller units may be appropriate.
The dining-out is a relatively new custom that includes spouses and guests. It is similar in all other respects to a dining-in. The dining-out is becoming increasingly popular with officers and enlisted members alike.
The combat dining-in, the newest of the dining-in traditions, is becoming increasingly popular, especially in operational units. The format and sequence of events is built around the traditional dining-in, however, it’s far less formal atmosphere and combat dress requirements (flight-suit, BDUs) have made it very appealing to the masses. There is not a great deal written on the subject and the only limit seems to be that of the imagination of the planning committee.
Officers wear the mess dress uniform. Retired officers may wear the mess dress or civilian attire. For enlisted members, mess dress or the semi-formal dress uniform is worn. Refer to AFI 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel for appropriate wear instructions. Male civilians should wear appropriate black tie dinner dress. The proper dress for civilians should be clearly stated in the invitation.
This officer is the center figure of the dining-in. Normally the commander of the organization hosting the dining-in is the President. The President is charged with the overall responsibility of the dining-in. Specific duties of the president are as follows:
b. Appoint any or all of the following project officers.
(1) Vice President
(2) Arrangements Officer
(3) Mess Officer
(4) Escort Officers
c. Secure an appropriate speaker, set the date, and determine location.
d. Arrange for a chaplain to give the invocation.
e. Greet all guests before dinner is served.
f. Opening and closing of the mess.
The Vice President serves as the President’s principle assistant. The Vice President is traditionally the most junior officer of the mess; however, the President may select another member to serve in this demanding position.
The success of the evening hinges largely on the imagination and humor of the Vice. Essentially a master or mistress of ceremonies and a toastmaster or toastmistress, Mister/Madam Vice keeps the program moving and stimulates table conversation through keen wit and impromptu speaking ability.
The Vice President also notes and makes special mention of the violations of the rules of the mess and breaches of protocol and etiquette.
Traditionally, the Vice President sits alone at the back of the dining room facing the President. This position allows them to observe the proceedings in order to monitor the flow of the program. Convenience and the physical layout of the dining area may dictate seating in another location; however, the Vice President is never seated near or at the head table. it is essential that the Vice be totally familiar with the customs and traditions of the mess.
Duties of the Vice President:
b. Sound the dinner chimes at the appropriate time.
c. Prepare appropriate toasts as directed by the President. Composition of appropriate poems or witticisms in good taste relating to personalities and organizations present is encouraged.
d. Keeps the party moving, and is the last person to leave.
The Arrangements Officer is directly responsible to the commander for the comprehensive planning of the dining-in and for attending to the numerous details required for a successful event. The person selected for this task should be a top planner and supervisor, as the Arrangements Officer is the architect of the dining-in.
The Arrangements Officer should not make any final decisions on major aspects of the dining-in without consulting the President.
Duties of the Arrangements Officer:
b. Make sure that flags and any awards are in place before the opening of the lounge, unless posting of the colors is part of the planned ceremony.
c. Arrange for a suitable public address system.
d. A lighted lectern with microphone should be provided for the convenience of the guest speaker and chaplain.
e. Place dinner chimes at the Vice’s location.
f. Arrange for a photographer if desired.
g. Publish a detailed agenda and prepare a recommended guest list. Distribution and content should be determined by the president.
h. Ensure hat/coat checker is available.
i. After the dining-in, prepare letters of appreciation for the President’s signature to the guest of honor and others who rendered service.
The Mess Officer is an optional player, however, it may be very useful to appoint one. Once preliminary decisions are made concerning the facilities which will be used for the event, the Mess Officer may take over all responsibilities associated with the dining facility.
The Protocol Officer’s duties:
b. Establish procedures for taking RSVPs.
c. Make necessary billeting and transportation arrangements.
d. Assist in determining the seating arrangement for the head table.
e. Brief the escort officers on specific protocol requirements relating to the guests.
f. Prior to the event, ensure biographical sketches of guests are distributed to the President, Vice, and other interested parties.
g. Ensure a parking plan has been established.
h. Assist escort officers as required.
i. Advise and assist on flag arrangements.
One escort officer should be appointed for each official and personal guest.
Duties of the Escort Officer:
b. If the guests are from out of town, meet them at their initial arrival point and arrange for transportation and accommodations during their stay.
c. Meet and escort the guest into the lounge.
d. Brief the guest on the customs, courtesies, rules, and procedures of the dining-in.
e. Make sure the guest is properly introduced to as many members of the mess as possible.
f. Ensure the guest is always in the company of several members of the mess, yet take care that no individual or group monopolizes the guest.
g. Upon the guest’s departure, escort the guest to the point of departure and bid farewell on behalf of all members of the mess.
The guest speaker’s presentation is the traditional highlight of the evening. By custom, the speaker should be distinguished either as a military officer or official of the government. The speaker should be contacted well in advance and advised of the nature of the evening. Arrangements should be made for them and other invited guests as protocol and custom dictate. Introduction of the guest speaker should avoid remarks too flattering or too lengthy. The speaker’s ability will be evident.
Start early. Two or three months should be considered a safe time to start. Set a firm date, location, and general action plan. It is a good idea to appoint a planning committee chaired by the Arrangements Officer.
The size of the committee generally depends on the magnitude of the function. A potential committee includes members responsible for the following:
c. Invitations and reservations
d. Food and beverages
The following is a general list of some of the more important committee tasks:
b. Choosing a guest speaker
c. Preparing and sending invitations to senior officials and guests
d. Preparing place cards
e. Providing suitable appropriate music
f. Developing a menu, including wine selection
g. Providing seating arrangements
h. Planning for decorations
i. Developing a program
j. Ensuring suitable financial planning is done
k. Ensuring adequate bartenders are available
l. Adequate Photo support
n. Gift for speaker
o. Site inspection
Following is a general description of the chain of events:
Cocktails - Each member of the mess should arrive in the lounge within 10 minutes of opening time. Members should never arrive after the senior honored guest. The cocktail period usually lasts between 30 and 60 minutes. This time is intended to allow members to assemble before dinner, and to meet the guests. It is not an “attitude adjustment” period. Background music is appropriate. It should be soft, classical, recorded or live.
Assembling for Dinner - At the end of the cocktail period; the Vice sounds the dinner chime and directs the mess to proceed to the dining room. Members and guests assigned to the head table remain in the lounge or assemble in an anteroom. All others should proceed in an orderly fashion to their assigned seats and stand quietly behind their chairs.
By tradition, drinks and lighted smoking materials are never taken into the dining area.
There are a number of ways the head table members can enter the dining area. Depending on the set-up and the circumstances of the arrival of the head table, you need to pick one of these methods. Present the options to the President and choose one.
1. Have President and guest of honor enter first with the President to the left of the guest of honor. Continue with the next ranking pair, with the ranking person to the right until all members are out.
2. Have head table members file into the dining area in the order they are to be seated at the table. This order especially makes sense when the platform the head table is on is narrow and does not allow members to pass behind one another while taking their place at the table.
3. Have the President and guest of honor enter the mess after everyone is assembled.
Calling the Mess to Order - Immediately following the sounding of Ruffles and Flourishes, the President raps the gavel once to call the mess to order. The President should then direct the color guard to post the colors. The color guard marches into the dining area and posts the colors. The National Anthem is then played or sung. If the colors are in place, or there is no color guard, the National Anthem is played or sung immediately following the President’s call to order.
Following the National Anthem, the color guard departs the room. Since protocol does not require the colors, once posted, be retired, some commanders elect to dismiss the color guard at this time.
After the color guard departs, the President asks the Chaplain or an appointed member of the mess to deliver the invocation. After the invocation, the members of the mess and guests remain standing as the next order of business is toasting.
Wine Pouring Ceremony - Usually, wine glasses are already filled, but if a wine pouring ceremony is observed, members of the mess and guests will be seated immediately following the invocation. The President removes the stopper from the decanter placed before them and the senior officer at each table does likewise, following the President’s lead. Decanters are passed from hand to hand to the right, with each member filling their glass. Decanters never touch the table until all glasses have been filled and the President replaces the stopper and places the decanter on the table. Club service personnel should be ready to replace decanters as they are emptied, and to fill the water goblets of those who prefer not to drink wine. According to the traditions of Commonwealth nations, only port wine is used for toasting, and another wine is used as the dinner wine. The choice of wines is the Presidents prerogative. When all glasses have been charged, with either wine or water, and the President has replaced the decanter on the table, all members of the mess and guests rise for the toast.
Toasting - The custom of toasting is universal. It is believed that this custom came into wide acceptance after the effects of poison were discovered. When two persons, who might be antagonists, drank from the same source at the same instant an suffered no ill effects, a degree of mutual trust and rapport could be established. With this foundation laid, discussions could continue on a more cordial basis. Today, toasting is a simple courtesy to the person being honored.
It is not necessary or proper to drain the glass at the completion of each toast. A mere touch of the glass to the lips satisfies the ceremonial requirements. Toasts should be proposed in sequence and at intervals during the program of the evening.
Members of the mess and gentlemen stand to toast, but female guests remain seated to drink the toast unless it is considered a standing ovation. If still in doubt, the ladies should take their cue from the members of the head table.
Toasts to deceased persons are normally made with water.
The President proposes the first toast. If a toast to the colors is done, it is always the first toast, to which the members of the mess respond, "To the Colors."
The second toast, in order of precedence, is to the heads of state of the allied nations represented. The toasts are made in the order determined by the seniority of allied officers present. Remember that Commonwealth nations toast the sovereign, not elected official. Consult your local Protocol office for the proper terminology to be used in toasting heads of state.
After the President of the mess has toasted the head of each Allied nation represented, the senior allied officer then proposes a toast to the President of the United States. The response is "To the President."
Following the President’s or senior allied officer’s toasts, Mister/Madam Vice proposes a toast to the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. The response is "To the Chief of Staff."
Toasts to the Chief of Staff of the Army, Chief of Naval Operations, and Commandant of the Marine Corps is appropriate if members of that service are present at the mess. The senior ranking officer representing a sister service would then propose a toast to the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force.
Excessive toasting can make for a long evening. While other toasts may be appropriate, too many toasts can cause the evening to run behind schedule and dampen the enthusiasm of the members of the mess. At some locations there may be a number of allied officers present. In this case, it is appropriate to collectively propose a toast to the heads of state of all Allied nations.
Informal toasts are also an important part of the occasion. They should be humorous, but in good taste. It may be advisable to “plant” some impromptu toasts to set the tone of the evening.
After the welcoming remarks, the President introduces the head table and the Vice proposes a toast "To our honored guests" response, "Hear, Hear."
Normally, toasts should be planned and approved in advance by the President. To avoid confusion the toasts and responses should be printed in the dining-in program booklets placed at the tables. However, at any time after the toast to the Chief of Staff, a member may ask to be recognized for any appropriate reason.
President’s Opening Remarks - Besides setting the tone for the evening, the opening remarks provide the opportunity to officially welcome guests. When all guests have been recognized, the Vice proposes a toast to the guests. Members of the mess stand, guests remain seated. The response to this and all future toasts is "Hear, Hear."
The President then seats the mess and invites the members to eat.
The first course may be placed on the table while the mess assembles in the cocktail lounge. However, soup should be hot and salad should not be wilted. Consider the capabilities of the dining facility and the desires of the President.
Courses are always served to the head table first. At other tables, the highest ranking persons are served first. Although this means junior members are served last, Mister/Madam Vice should be served immediately after the head table. Toasts requested by the mess during dinner and related activities take up so much of the Vice President’s time that they simply won’t have a chance to eat unless they are served early. The President always has the option to limit toasts in order to keep the evening on schedule or to permit members to eat uninterrupted.
Smoking Lamp - With the current trend being that of a smoke-free environment, many dining establishments are non-smoking facilities. Check with the President to see if one is desired or will be omitted entirely.
Recess - At the time scheduled for recess, the President raps the gavel three times to gain attention. When the mess is silent, the President raps twice and announces a short recess to the dished may be cleared and desert served. Members stand by their places until the head table departs. Everyone then proceeds to the cocktail lounge where the bars have reopened.
Reconvening the Mess - At the end of the recess, the Vice sounds the dinner chimes and directs everyone to proceed to the dining room. Traditionally, lighted smoking materials and drinks should not be brought into the dining area following recess.
When members reach their places they stand directly behind their chairs. The President then leads the head table party into the dining room The President then seats the mess with one rap of the gavel. Coffee and tea are immediately served and dessert is eaten.
Awards - Perform awards or recognition ceremonies as applicable. A convenient time is immediately before the guest of honor’s speech. Under no circumstances should any ceremony follow directly after the guest speaker’s speech, which should be the highlight of the evening.
Guest Speaker’s Address - After awards and any scheduled entertainment, the President introduces the Guest Speaker. The speaker’s address typically lasts 15 to 20 minutes and should be of a patriotic or entertaining nature. After thanking the speaker for their time and thoughts, the President presents the gift to the speaker. The President then asks the Vice to propose an appropriate toast to the Guest Speaker. The Vice proposes a toast, "To our Guest of Honor."
Closing the Mess - After the toast to the guest speaker, the President should recognize those who organized the dining-in and thank the Vice. If desired, the colors may then be retired by the color guard, The President encourages everyone to stay and enjoy themselves, if post-dinner entertainment is planned, and then adjourns the mess with two raps of the gavel. After the mess is adjourned, members should remain at the dining-in until the guest of honor and the President have left. If there is to be an extensive delay in leaving, the President may allow members to leave at their discretion. Traditionally, the Vice is the last member to leave the dining-in.
The grog bowl is an accessory traditional to dinings-in, although it is not required. The contents of the grog bowl are best left to the imagination of the planning committee. The contents should be non-alcoholic so as not to dampen the spirits and participation of those individuals who do not consume alcoholic beverages. It is permissible to have two grog bowls, one alcoholic and one non-alcoholic.
Some organizations have successfully used a grog mixing ceremony where the individual contents are combined with a humorous narrative by the Vice.
Infractions warranting a trip to the grog bowl may be noted at any time by the President, Vice President, or any member of the mess. Members bring infractions to the attention of the President by raising a point of order. If the validity of the charge is questioned, members vote by tapping their spoons on the table.
When the President directs a violator to the grog bowl, the individual proceeds to the bowl promptly. The bowl is usually located on or near the Vice’s table. Upon arriving at the grog bowl, the violator does the following:
b. Does an about face to the bowl and fills the cup
c. Does another about face and toasts the mess
d. Drains the contents of the cup without removing it from the lips, then places it inverted on their head signifying it is empty.
e. Does an about face, replaces the cup, about faces again, salutes the President, and returns to their seat. With the exception of the toast, "To the Mess," the violator is not permitted to speak during this process.
2. Thou shalt make every effort to meet all guests.
3. Thou shalt move to the mess when thee hears the chimes and remain standing until seated by the President.
4. Thou shalt not bring cocktails or lighted smoking material into the mess.
5. Thou shalt smoke only when the smoking lamp is lit.
6. Thou shalt not leave the mess whilst convened. Military protocol overrides all calls of nature.
7. Thou shalt participate in all toasts unless thyself or thy group is honored with a toast.
8. Thou shalt ensure that thy glass is always charged when toasting.
9. Thou shalt keep toasts and comments within the limits of good taste and mutual respect. Degrading or insulting remarks will be frowned upon by the membership. However, good natured needling is encouraged.
10. Thou shalt not murder the Queen’s English.
11. Thou shalt not open the hangar doors. (talk about work)
12. Thou shalt always use the proper toasting procedures.
13. Thou shalt fall into disrepute with thy peers if the pleats of thy cummerbund are not properly faced.
14. Thou shalt also be painfully regarded if the clip-on bow tie rides at an obvious list. Thou shalt be forgiven, however, if thee also ride at a comparable list.
15. Thou shalt consume thy meal in a manner becoming gentlepersons.
16. Thou shalt not laugh at ridiculously funny comments unless the President first shows approval by laughing.
17. Thou shalt express thy approval by tapping thy spoon on the table. Clapping of thy hands will not be tolerated.
18. Thou shalt not question the decisions of the President.
19. When the mess adjourns, thou shalt rise and wait for the President and head table guests to leave.
20. Thou shalt enjoy thyself to thy fullest.
Two cautions should be noted; first, do not go overboard with expenses. A good time does not have to be excessively costly. Second, prepare an agenda and stick to the schedule. Too many skits, entertainment, patriotic programs, and so forth can make the evening drag on. If the mess is formally opened at 1930 and the guest speaker begins his speech at 2330, most members will be more attentive to their watches than to the guest’s presentation. A formal program that lasts between 2 ant 2-1/2 hours is ideal and allows sufficient time for informal entertainment.