Customs and Traditions
The Naval Mess Dinner
Table of Contents
The Naval Mess Dinner is an important function and steeped in tradition. The amount of tradition that is followed varies from unit to unit. This web page a details some of the traditions which should be followed.
The mess dinner can be considered a special or ceremonial occasion, carried on from the days when officers dined formally every evening. The traditions and ceremonies observed during the dinner have evolved over time but the basic rules of conduct observed are those of polite society. The sequence of events, and the customs and traditions observed when dining in a naval mess, (whether ashore or onboard one of HMC ships) are outlined below.
Please keep in mind that Army Regiments and Air Force Units have unique customs and traditions that are different from those of a naval mess dinner. When guests from other services are present it is a normal courtesy to give them some leeway as to the enforcement of these rules and traditions.
The dress to be worn at the dinner should be specified in advance on the dinner invitation.
The Mess President is normally the President of the dinner, although any officer or member could be called upon to act as President. There is no rank at a Mess Dinner, so the President presides over all diners regardless of rank, seniority or classification. During the dinner the President may discipline any diner for misbehaviour. He normally occupies center of the head table. When there is no head table the President normally sits in the seat nearest the door.
The Vice-President is subordinate to the President during dinner. In a large mess with more than one table, there should be a Vice-President seated at each table.
If there is only a single table, the Vice-President would be seated President’s right and farthest away from him/her.
The traditional time for dinner is "1930 for 2000", meaning that cocktails are scheduled for 1930 and the Dinner is started at 2000. This is the traditional mess dinner time, though some messes might adjust this time based on certain requirements.
The half hour set aside for cocktails is for guests to review the seating plan and mingle. Sherry is the traditional pre-dinner drink, chosen for it being a fortified wine which serves as a good "warm-up" for the wine that will follow.
The mess dinner seating plan is normally arranged in advance and displayed prior to the dinner. As well, individual place settings at the table should be marked with a name card.
When creating the seating plan, the following rules/guidelines should be adhered to:
- Shifting places is not permitted;
- Guests shall normally sit to the right of their hosts. If there is a situation where a member is hosting two guests, than he/she shall sit between them;
- Guests should not sit beside each other if it can be avoided;
- The President would normally be host to the guest of honour, who would be seated to the President's right. If there are other honoured guests, a Vice-President or another members may act as hosts.
- The success of a dinner is often related to the amount of time spent on the seating plan. Therefore the organizer should:
- Carefully considers each person attending the dinner;
- Avoids concentrating junior or senior members;
- Considers the personalities involved and distributes the more witty and outgoing individuals to help liven up the entire group;
- Avoids placing long-winded or boring individuals as Vice-Presidents: and
- Considers the group and determines how best to separate couples, if it seems desirable to do so.
If no seating plan is provided, or if the seating plan provides only for the President and mess guests, the diners shall take their places at the table without regard to rank or seniority.
At approximately 1955, the senior steward would enter the room and report to the President: "Dinner is Served"
The President and his guest would then lead the way into the dining room. If a band is present it would strike up the traditional "The Roast Beef of Olde England", which was the tune which Nelson and his officers went to dinner by in the flagship on the eve of Trafalgar). The song is played as all the diners file into the dining room.
On entering the dining room, the President goes to his/her place and sits down immediately. The others then take their seats as they arrive at their places.
The President then taps the table for silence. If there is a chaplain present, he/she will say "Grace". If there is more than one Chaplain in attendance, it should be agreed in advance who will say Grace.
If there is no chaplain present, the President would normally say Grace, however the duty could be assigned to any member at the dinner.
Although the person saying Grace may use his/her own wording, the prayer normally used by Presidents and other diners is traditionally "For what we are about to receive, thank God." Keep in mind that when a Chaplain is saying Grace he/she is not limited to these words and they may use any words that they feel appropriate.
Mess guests are served before the President and other guests before their hosts. The President should not delay starting a course, since other diners should wait to follow his lead. No dish should be removed until the last diner has finished eating each course.
No diner shall leave the table without permission. If a diner has been granted permission to sit down late, or to return to the table, he continues with the course then being served, unless he has the President’s permission to eat the course he missed.
Each steward carries not more than two plates at a time. They will serve and remove with their left hand from the left side. However, wine and other beverages are always served and removed from a diner’s right.
There are other important rules of service that may be found in A-AD-262-000/AG-000 - Mess Administration manual.
Though the table service provided at a formal dinner party may initially appear formidable, the basic rule of thumb for silverware is simply "start at the outside and work in."
The arrangement of utensils corresponds to the courses that will be served, and are placed in the order in which they will be used. On the right beginning at the outside is the soup spoon, fish knife, and dinner knife. On the left is the fish fork, salad fork and the dinner fork. The dessert spoon and fork are placed above the plate. A bread knife and teaspoon may be added.
There should be glasses placed for water, white wine, red wine and port. The stewards should ensure that the right wine gets to the right wine glass for each course.
The accompanying illustration shows the proper service for a formal dinner.
Diners should sit up straight at the table with their hands on their lap when not using table utensils. Elbows should never touch the table.
Traditionally diners who have officially been on a ship which navigated Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope may place one elbow on the table. In a rare occasion where a diner has crossed both Capes he/she may place both elbows on the table.
The table napkin should be laid across the lap and not tucked into the tunic. At the end of the meal, the napkin should be laid on the table so that it can be taken away by the stewards as the table is cleared.
When the soup course is served, the soup should be taken from the side of the spoon. A knife is never lifted to the mouth, or used for cutting bread or rolls. Bread shall be broken with the hands. The fork should be held in the left hand for the meat, and may be transferred to the right hand for vegetables. After the main course is finished the knife and fork are placed side by side on the plate to indicate that the plate may be removed.
Additional fine points of table manners to be followed are:
- Lumps of sugar are removed with tongs or a clean spoon
- Tea or coffee cups are not held in the hand for long periods; after a short sip, they are returned to the saucer;
- Teaspoons are not used to taste the tea or coffee, but rather to stir the ingredients; and
- Toothpicks are not used at the table and should only be used in private.
The tap of the President’s gavel for "Grace" signals that the dinner has officially begun. Between that time and the "Loyal Toast" the following rules apply.
Without the President’s permission, no one may:
- Come in and sit down at the table;
- Leave the table;
- Return to the table;
- Read (except the menu or the musical programme):
- Write; or
- Speak to anyone not dining (this does not apply to giving an order to a steward or receiving a message from him).
If a diner is near enough to the President to ask his permission regarding any item listed above, he does so; if he is too far away, he sends a steward to the President with the request. When he is coming to the table late, or is returning having left it, he always asks the President’s permission.
Diners are not allowed to:
- Commence a course before the President;
- Utter an oath or use foul language;
- Place a bet or wager;
- Discuss political or other controversial subjects;
- Talk "shop", also meaning that they are not to conduct normal work business while seated at the dinner;
- Speak in a foreign language (except when foreign guests are present);
- Tell "off colour" stories;
- Mention a woman’s name unless she is a celebrity (The President’s decision on the matter. as on all others is final. This rule does not apply when ladies, other than female officers, are present);
- Mention a specific sum of money; or
- Propose a toast ("Cheers" or similar remarks or raising the glass as in greeting constitutes a toast).
Whenever the President or Vice-President taps the table there must be silence until he has finished speaking.
Misbehaviour or breaking the rules of order generally results in disciplinary action. The President has three options: order the culprit to leave the mess; fine him an appropriate number of drinks; or warn him.
The punishment will usually fit the crime. A diner is ordered to leave for a serious offence such as gross rudeness. For other offences, more light-hearted in nature, the offender is given a chance to exonerate himself by the use of his wits.
An officer coming to dinner late may have his excuse accepted; he may be refused permission to dine, or he may be fined. Fines vary from a single drink to drinks for all present. The President may award drinks to any diner or diners he chooses to name, including himself. If there is an offended party he is generally mollified by receiving payment of a fine. The Vice-President may warn or fine the President. Fines imposed on a guest must be paid for by his (or her) host.
It is permissible for any diner to call the President’s attention to a misdemeanour, but wise is the man who first obtains the President’s permission to do so since without such permission, he himself may be fined.
The procedure for warning or fining is for the President to tap the table for silence, and say, for example:
"Mr. Mitchell will have the honour of entertaining Mr. Smith in the mess,” or
"Mr. Mitchell will have the honour of entertaining the Vice-President of the port table,” or
"Mr. Mitchell is warned."
There is no set phrase, but the expression "will buy a drink" is avoided.
The fines are never paid until after the toasts have been drunk, and no diner who has not drunk the toasts in wine may accept payment of a fine. Toasts may never be drunk in wine that is served in payment of a fine. Offenders honour fines in the mess after the dinner is over, and in the beverage of the recipient’s choice. If a diner who was named as the recipient of the payment of a fine does not accept payment, the fine is considered paid.
When the last course has been finished, the stewards clear the table of everything except the table decorations, sweep up all the crumbs and remove the napkins. If Port glasses are part of the original table setting, the port glasses should remain on the table.
Once the tables are cleared the senior steward should report to the President: "Tables cleared, Sir."
The President would then tap his/her gavel for silence and then calls on the chaplain to "Give thanks." If no chaplain is present the President gives thanks in the customary way: "For what we have received, thank God."
After "Thanks" are given, the Port should be passed. Decanters of port, stoppers in, are placed before the President and each Vice-President. These decanters will be passed to all diners.
If there are no port glasses in front of each diner, port glasses shall be brought around by the stewards and set before each diner. Other dessert wines such as Madeira or Marsala may be used instead of, or in addition to, the port.
Once the decanters are in place, the senior steward reports to the President: "The wine is ready to pass, Sir."
The President then unstoppers the decanters in front of him, as do the Vice-Presidents with decanters. The President passes his decanter to the left, and other officers do the same without serving themselves.
The decanters are kept at least one place apart as they move around the table. If no one is seated at the end of the table, the stewards move the decanters across it. Any diner who forgets to help himself before passing the port is out of luck since decanters move only to the left.
The port is passed by sliding the decanters along the table, reducing the risk of dropping them or spilling their contents. They may be raised from the table to pour. The practice of never lifting the decanters, even to pour, is an exaggeration of the passing method. There is absolutely no necessity to hold your glass below the edge of the table then tilt the decanter to pour while its base remains firmly on the table. The decanter can be picked up to pour in a normal fashion as long as it is placed back down and then remains touching the table as it is slid to the next diner on the table.
No-one is required to take port if they do not want it, but if it is to be taken, it must be taken on the first round of the decanters, or not at all.
In civilian toasts, if you do not have wine, your glass is filled with water. In the Navy, however, toasts are never made with water, as superstition says that the person toasted will die by drowning.
When the decanter arrives back at the President, or Vice-President, he/she should serve themself and then wait for the passing of the port to be completed on other tables. When the port passing has been completed the President should stoppers the decanter in front of him and the other's should do the same.
No diner should touch their port until the "loyal toast" has been proposed.
The health of Her Majesty the Queen is honoured while diners remain seated in the wardrooms of HMC ships and designated naval establishments, except:
- When a band is present, and “God Save the Queen” is played;
- When foreign guests, other than foreign exchange officers, are present; and
- When Her Majesty the Queen, or another member of the Royal Family is present (unless they have specifically expressed a wish that those in attendance remain seated.)
The privilege accorded to the Navy of remaining seated while drinking the Sovereign’s health is long-standing but obscure in its origin. There are several popular beliefs about these origins. One is that King Charles II when on board the Royal Charles humped his head on rising to reply to the toast and that King William IV, Lord High Admiral, did the same as he stood up during a dinner on one of HM ships. Another is that King George IV, while dining on board one of HM ships said, as the officers rose to drink the King’s health "Gentlemen, pray be seated, your loyalty is above suspicion."
The late Marquis of Milford Haven (Lord Louis Mountbatten’s father) when First Sea Lord, drew attention to the fact in Admiralty orders that, although the Navy had the privilege of sitting when honouring the ‘loyal toast,’ the privilege did not apply when the National Anthem (“God Save the Queen”) was played. This was in strict accordance with the wishes of His Majesty, King George V. Thus Admiralty Instructions read:
“The underlying idea is that whenever the anthem is played, when the King’s Health is proposed, everyone stands up. If it is not played, people remain seated."
The following is the Loyal Toast procedure according to A-AD-200-000/AG-000, The Honours, Flags and Heritage Structure of the Canadian Forces:
4. The host or President of the Mess Committee (PMC) shall call for the loyal toast by addressing the vice-president in English or French and the vice-president shall propose the toast in the other language.
b. The loyal toast shall be – "[Ladies and] Gentlemen, The Queen of Canada". At mess dinners of units in which the Sovereign personally holds an honorary appointment, the address to the vice-president may include that appointment; e.g., "Mr. Vice, The Queen of Canada, our Captain-General".
c. When an officer or other distinguished person is officially representing a country that is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and that recognizes The Queen as its head of state, and that officer or person is entertained at a mess dinner, the loyal toast shall be to "The Queen, Head of the Commonwealth" in lieu of "Queen of Canada".
d. When an officer or other distinguished person who is officially representing a country that is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations but that does not recognize The Queen as its head of state, and that officer or person is entertained at a mess dinner, the loyal toast shall be to "The Queen of Canada, Head of the Commonwealth" and the procedure in paragraph 7 shall also apply.
5. When a band is in attendance, one verse of the royal anthem, "God Save The Queen", shall be played immediately after the proposal of the loyal toast by the vice-president.
6. The loyal toast shall be drunk standing, whether "God Save The Queen", is played or not, except in Her Majesty's Canadian (HMC) ships where the health of Her Majesty The Queen shall be honoured while seated. However, when Her Majesty The Queen, or any other member of the Royal Family is present in an HMC ship, the loyal toast shall be honoured standing unless Her Majesty or other member of the Royal Family has expressed a wish that those in attendance remain seated. The pleasure of the royal personage should be sought beforehand.
7. When an officer or other distinguished person is officially representing a foreign state and is entertained at a mess dinner, the following procedure applies:
a. The loyal toast shall be proposed first, except as noted in paragraph 9.
b. When only one foreign guest is present, the form of the toast to the head of state of the country to which the guest belongs is "Gentlemen, The President of ...", following the format of sub-paragraph 4.a. The national anthem of the foreign country should then be played. A shorter version of the anthem may be used if it has been ascertained beforehand that this would be in accordance with the custom of the country concerned.
c. When a number of nations are represented, the form is a collective toast, e.g., "Gentlemen, The heads of states here represented", following the format of sub-paragraph 4.a. The national anthems of all the countries in the collective toast would not be played in this case.
8. A member of a foreign force who is undergoing training with the CF or covering a vacancy in a CF establishment should not be considered an official representative of the member's country at a mess dinner unless so delegated. If a foreign guest is being entertained privately in a mess, there need be no deviation from the normal practice of proposing the loyal toast only.
9. On board ship or in a fleet establishment it is customary to propose the first toast to the head of state of the country to which the guest belongs, and then the senior guest member of the other nation proposes the loyal toast. If the state is a member of the Commonwealth that does not recognize The Queen as head of state, the loyal toast shall be proposed first since it includes The Queen's title as Head of the Commonwealth, unless the head of the particular state in question is actually present when the custom first noted in this paragraph shall apply.
Guests, military or civilian, should follow the customs of the naval mess that they are visiting, just as naval officers dining in other messes observe the traditions of that particular institution.
Naval officers never clink glasses when they make a toast. The sound is reputed to be too much like the solemn toll of the ship’s bell as the body of a sailor was committed to the deep. Thus, it is assumed that the clinking sound will herald the death of a sailor. Silencing a clink that has occurred, or quickly clinking a second time, is thought to confuse the devil enough that he might take a soldier instead.
Once the "Loyal Toast" has been proposed the formalities of the dinner are considered ended.
It was traditional for cigars and cigarettes to be passed out at this time, however current regulations do not allow smoking at Mess Dinners.
At this point, the President will call upon a member (usually the most Junior diner present) to propose the Toast of the Day. There is a different toast for each day of the week, and getting them confused is dealt with strictly!In fact, the President has the to ask for any Toast of the Day regardless of the day on which the dinner is being held.
Although it is customary for the officer giving the toast to preface it with an applicable brief and witty preamble, those who can be neither witty nor brief are cautioned against attempting the effort.
After the Toast of the Day is complete other toasts may be entertained, on the discretion of the President.
Another custom in the Service is for the President to invite the bandmaster (if present) and the chief cook to join him in a glass of port. Chairs are provided and a toast may be proposed, after which they stay for the a portion of the evening. The senior steward may also be invited, but normally he/she will still be busy with his/her duties. Stewards and galley staff may also be thanked at this time.
Port may be passed one more time and then be left unstoppered for the remainder of the dinner.
Repartee, speeches and explanations are normally left until the end of dinner, after the toasts, when everyone has been well-wined and dined. This is not the time for a serious or lengthy speech, unless the speakers’ itinerary precludes another opportunity to address the group.
The guest of honour normally makes the final speech of the evening, and everyone is expected to listen attentively.
Since points of order may be confusing to non-military guests, speakers usually use common sense and good taste in consideration for them.
The President may suggest to the guest of honour and others at the head table that they adjourn for coffee and liqueurs. When he rises the diners should stand and remain standing until he has left the room. Diners are expected to join the President and the Guest of Honour without undue delay.