After the labors of the Lodge have been completed, Freemasons frequently meet at tables to enjoy a repast in common. In England and America, this repast is generally called a banquet, and the Lodge is said to be, during its continuance, at refreshment.
The Master, of course, presides, assisted by the Wardens, and it is considered most proper that no profanes should be present. But with these exceptions, there are no rules specially laid down for the government of Masonic banquets. It will be seen, by an inspection of the article Refreshment in this work, that during a the eighteenth century, and even at the commencement of the nineteenth, refreshments in a English Lodges were taken during the sessions of the Lodge and in the Lodge room, and then, of course, a rigid rules were in existence for the government of the Fraternity, and for the regulation of the forms in which the refreshments should be partaken. But this system has long grown obsolete, and the Masonic banquets of the present day differ very little from those of other societies, except, perhaps, in a more Strict observance of the rules of order, and in the exclusion of all non-Masonic visitors.
But French Freemasons have prescribed a very formal system of rules for what they call a Loge de Table, or Table Lodge. The room in which the banquet takes place is as much protected by its isolation from observation as the Lodge-room itself. Table Lodges are always held in the Apprentice's Degree, and none but Freemasons are permitted to be present. Even the attendants are taken from the class known as Serving Brethren, that is to say, waiters who have received the First Degree for the special purpose of entitling them to be present on such occasions.
The table is in the form of a horseshoe or elongated semicircle. The Master sits at the head, the Senior Warden at the northwest extremity, and the Junior Warden at the southwest The Deacons or equivalent officers sit between the two Wardens. The Brethren are placed around the exterior margin of the table, facing each other; and the void space between the sides is occupied by the serving Brethren or attendants. It is probable that the form of the table was really adopted at first from motives of convenience. But M. Hermitte (Bulletin, Grand Orient, 1869, page 83) assigns for it a symbolism. He says that as the entire circle represents the year, or the complete revolution of the earth around the sun, the semicircle represents the half of that revolution, or a period of six months, and therefore refers to each the two solstitial points of summer and winter, or the two great festivals of the Order in June and December, when the most important Table Lodges are held.
The Table Lodge is formally opened with an invocation to the Grand Architect. During the banquet seven toasts are given. These are called Santes d' Obligation, or obligatory toasts. They are drunk with certain ceremonies which are prescribed by the ritual, and from which no departure is permitted. These toasts are:
- The health of the Sovereign or Chief Magistrate of the State.
- Grand Master and the Supreme power of the Order, that is, the Grand Orient or the Grand Lodge.
- Master of the Lodge; this is offered by the Senior Warden.
- The two Wardens.
- Visiting Brethren.
- The other officers of the Lodge, and the new initiates or affiliates if there be any.
- All Freemasons wheresoever spread over the face of the globe.
Ragon (Tuileur General, page 17) refers these seven toasts of obligation to the seven libations made by the ancients in their banquets in honor of the seven planets, the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, and the seven days of the week which are named after them; and he assigns some striking reasons for the reference. But this symbolism, although very beautiful, is evidently very modern.
The Table Lodge is then closed with the fraternal kiss, which is passed from the Master around the table, and with the usual forms.
One of the most curious things about these Table Lodges is the vocabulary used. The instant that the Lodge is opened, a change takes place in the names of things, and no person is permitted to call a plate a plate, or a knife a knife, or anything else by the appellation by which it is known in ordinary conversation. Such a custom formerly prevailed in England, if we may judge from a passage in Doctor Oliver's Revelations of a Square (page 215), where an instance is given of its use in 1780, when the French vocabulary was employed. It would seem, from the same authority, that the custom was introduced into England from France by Captain George Smith, the author of the Use and Abuse of Freemasonry, who was initiated in a Continental Lodge.