Digital Series #2 – Apron with a Blue Ribbon Border

Mark A. Nielsen, PM

4 years in Reflection….

The below short talk was originally written in an effort to remain relevant at a time when a fundamental change was necessary for the survival of masonic lodge in which I was a member of for roughly 10 years and a pillar of at the time. It was one of my first forrays into masonic education which I vowed to provide at every Stated Meeting starting in roughly 2015. Some called me trailblazer and others accused me of challenging tradition, authority, and the very fabric that held masonry together in North County San Diego. I guess they weren’t wrong! 

My intention was always to keep Masonry and Brothers thriving and inspired wherever I possibly could. I never would have thought that this short talk, or at least the drive behind it, would cause so much discussion, turmoil, reflection, understanding, and ultimately, change – for the better. There were so many directions this particular short talk could have been taken to continue down the path of further light in Masonry. I certainly learned that a simple idea – along with a little bit of digging in your heals and a conviction of your principles – is the perfect launchpad for positive change. 

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Apron with a Blue Ribbon Border
Mark Nielsen
Short Talk – Stated Meeting Oceanside – San Dieguito Lodge No. 381
3/1/2016

One evening prior to a degree, I was assembling our paraphernalia and came to the box of Past Master Aprons. As I unfettered the ties, I looked through the stack of 40 or so aprons and noticed only the top few were emblazoned with the Past Master sun, compass and sextant/quadrant. This caught my attention and I began to recall some of my early reading of the craft when I was first raised a Master Mason. I went back into my reading and dove further into the history of our aprons, their significance, and what accouterments are used on aprons in other jurisdictions and rituals. 

I was fascinated to discover that well over half of the recognized jurisdictions in the United States (PHA included), the apron of a Master Mason is a white apron with a blue border with either no emblem or the emblem consisting of a square & compass. I was also fascinated to re-discover the significance of the blue fringe. 

We read in the Holy Writings…

And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of each border a cord of blue: and it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye follow not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to play the harlot; that ye may remember and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

Book of Numbers, chapter 15, verse 37

Of course, there are many shades of blue. One of the original colors used is Cambridge Blue, which is a lighter blue – similar to sky blue. It is related to the color of the Virgin Mary (mother of Jesus), which was derived from the color of the Egyptian Goddess Isis (goddess of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden). 

In 1813, the Grand Lodge of England standardized the size and shape of aprons and the original Cambridge Blue was updated to a darker blue in order to distinguish between a Royal House that was exiled at that time. 

According to Albert Mackay, renowned masonic author, the blue border is significant in being the color of the firmament of the globe, which is emblematic of universal friendship and benevolence, reminding us that the virtues of Freemasonry should ever be inculcated in us and as extensive as the Vault of Heaven itself.

The darker blue can also be akin to the ancient Tekhelet Blue, which was used in the garments of Jewish High Priests, the tapestries of the Tabernacle, and tassels affixed to a four-cornered prayer garment (sound familiar?). Tekhelet is derived from a root word meaning “perfection.” 

The Talmud, the record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics customs and Jewish history, asks the same ancient question about Tekhelet that we ask about Masonic blue…and that is: “Why blue?” The answer is,

“Because this color resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky and the sky resembles the “Chair of Glory”.

Talmud: Men. 43b

Considering the state of our fraternity and needing to be relevant both in our history and in the appeal to new good men, we must strive to create an experience that is not only significant and experiential but also aligned with our tradition, history, and teaching. 

Just as the Past Master emblem is significant in its meaning as a navigation tool, that a Past Master was able to traverse the leadership of a lodge and assist a new Master is the discharge of his duties, so is the blue border on our emblematic garment meaningful to our history and who we are as Master Masons. 

What makes us a Master Mason? Our obligation. What do Master Masons do? They oversee work. What proves we know our obligation? A Master Mason’s proficiency. How does a Master Mason oversee work? They serve as an officer or committee member.

Upon obtaining a Master Mason proficiency and overseeing lodge work as an officer or committee member for at least a year, any brother would be worthy of donning an apron with a blue border as a symbol of his dedication to our ancient craft and lodge.

(End of Short Talk)

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In California, how do you tell the difference between a Master Mason and a Fellow of the Craft by the way he wears his apron? (Rhetorical). Without a Master Master proficiency and overseeing some work, can a Master Master be considered any more than a Fellow of the Craft? (Also rhetorical). Food for thought. 

After the short talk was delivered, a motion was made to instate a new tradition and/or meaning of the blue-bordered aprons. The older Past Masters led a vehemently negative discussion – many times ignoring proper masonic protocol. In the end, once the vote was called, only 1 NAY vote came from the Brothers and no one verbally abstained. 

The short talk was delivered at many of the Masonic Lodges in North County San Diego in the subsequent year and some even adopted the new tradition. Oceanside 381 saw a rise in completed Master Mason proficiencies as well as service to the lodge. A subsequent short talk – or more like a presentation speech – was written to be recited when a brother was presented with his blue-bordered apron (whether it was one to keep, or simply a symbolic one from the inventory at the lodge). 

Fast forward a few years and many conversations, short talks, and lodge support sessions later, I learned that every division, and sometimes even district to district, had a different interpretation or tradition behind the Master Mason apron. As I shared what we had instated and accomplished at Oceanside 381 with large groups of Masons, I was eventually contacted by Grand Lodge representatives who disagreed with what we did and try to sequester and further promotion of the idea. I had started to learn a bit about politics as a social grace (not as a social science) by this time, and I would simply pivot the focus of my talks to remaining relevant to Brothers who spanned 4 fundamental generations of men. Even the executive committee eventually had to take a stance on the fact that the California Masonic Code will not be further clarified nor are aprons a topic for the ritual committee to decide. And I will leave the ambiguity of the California Masonic Code on the topic of aprons for another short talk – so as not to digress or further the slippery political slope. 

In California, I know of a lodge who only uses custom personal hand-painted white lambskin aprons for all members including officers while they are in their stations. I know of another lodge who uses uniform aprons without officer jewels for their officers. I know of yet another where the standard Master Mason apron is a white lambskin apron with a blue border. I know of yet another that only uses plain white aprons for all members (Past Masters and Officers included). All of these lodges seem to have something in common – they know their traditions, can adequately communicate them, and hold fast to them as long as they are relevant. 

Can a tradition be considered a tradition if it isn’t written down? Can it be a tradition if no one can remember the reason why it was made a tradition? Can it be a tradition if it isn’t relevant to those people who are told to perpetuate it?

Our Masonic Apron is a huge part of our culture. Our physical objects, along with our behaviors and traditions, encapsulate the pride and identity of who we are as Masons. Aprons come in many different shapes, sizes, and designs, all of which are symbolic to the jurisdiction, lodge or brother who is wearing it. Can a Brother don his apron and fully understand and live the symbols and principles they represent? 

It is not about challenging authority or the very fabric that binds us together as a society of friends and Brothers. It is about ensuring that we are practicing what we preach. Are we looking at our own traditions – much as we would take an inventory of our own symbolic temples – and ensuring they are as relevant today as they were 10, 20, 50 or 300 years ago? Are we able to adequately communicate our traditions in a way that those both internally and externally can understand them? And of course, do our physical objects show both our hearty band of brothers as well as society at large that we are very much alive and thriving? 

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