It is worth pointing out that you do NOT have to be Jewish to have a Seder. MANY Christians have them as there are roots of Christianity in The Exodus.
Here are my ten favorite tidbits to consider as you sit down for your Seder.
- Preparing Your Home. There is a tradition to welcoming Pesach in to your home that involves the removal of all leavened grain Ior even the remnants and residue of it) from the home. DEEP cleaning, depending on how strong your is not all that different from the American custom of "spring cleaning." Coincidence? Probably not. Additionally, some grocers will even remove all products from their stores and, in rare cases, even "deed" over their owner for the duration of Pesach to honor the mandates of the festival.
- Grocery Shopping. Very few American Jews (3% according to one thing I read) live a fully Kashrut life (I know ONE, personally) but many more will eat as Kosher as possible during holidays and festivals. The Seder is a big one for consideration. Many Jews will want to either buy or make a handful of common Seder dishes including matzah (see below), gefilte fish, and lotsa' wine.
- Second Seder. If you live in Israel you can have a Seder at sundown on the 14th of Nisan. If you live anywhere else in the world, you can have issues with the clock and the sun and making sure you honor the day the right way. For this reason, the "Second Seder" is marked by Jews outside of Israel. It is also likely common because many Jews have two families to enjoy a Seder with and/or they will have a FAMILY Seder on the first night and a communal (with their congregation, friends, etc.) the second night. Either way - it is good form to have at LEAST two Seders.
- Haggadah. The Haggadah is, for lack of a better way to explain, a companion book for a Seder. While the first printed version is dated 1478, there are no "rules" to the Haggadah (for a hilarious and off-color language strewn overview for making your own, click here). The key is to incorporate songs, prayers, traditions, and customs to make the festival your own and to guide the story of The Exodus in a personal way. Not feeling creative? Get tips and advice on a Haggadah here OR stop by a grocery store and grab a free Maxwell House Haggadah in the Kosher food section. This is the one I bought for my first set of Seders.
- Six Foods. While there is a lot of freedom and leeway to the Seder there are six foods that should (must?) be present. They are i) bitter herbs represent the sour taste of slavery ii) Charoset is a brown mixture of sweet foods that represent the mortar the slaves used to build Egypt iii) Karpas is a vegetable (not another bitter herb) dipped in salt water that represents the pain of the Jewish slaves (the salt wash is the pain, the vegetable is the free version of the person) iv) Z'roa is the only meat on the Seder plate and it is generally a shank bone to represent the lamb that gave its blood for The Passover v) Beitzah is an egg that symbolizes mourning the dead (a roasted egg is also commonly the first food served to a person mourning the loss of a loved one vi) Chazret is another, less-bitter herb (lettuce or carrots) to remind participants of their slavery ties.
- Matzah. The most commonly known Seder foot, matzah is unleavened bread that is consumed throughout the festival but is also present at a Seder. Each person is given three pieces and they are wrapped and separated before the meal is served. Each person breaks their third matzah and "hides" it to then be "found" and consumed as the last bite of a Seder.
- Four Sons. While Moses is not mentioned by name in the traditional Haggadah, there are four sons detailed in the prose. Three of them are wise, wicked, and simple and the fourth - perhaps my favorite - is thought of as pitiful. He is pitied not because he is the youngest or because he is naive but more because he doesn't know enough of or value his faith enough to ask questions to grow and advance. Don't be the fourth son.
- Five Cups. While there is open opportunity for the consumption of MUCH wine (grape juice for the sober folk and minors) during a Seder, there is a mandate for at least five cups of wine and the consumption of four. The five cups represent G-d's love in being i) freed from Egypt ii) delivered back to Israel iii) redeemed in his glory and iv) taken to your people. The fifth cup is thought to be left for Elijah (the not-yet-(t)here savoir). One of my favorite customs, however, is to have the fifth cup passed around prior to the consumption of each of the other four cups so each dinner attendee can pour a tiny bit (with their hopes and dreams) in to the cup and then it will make a final trip around the table at the end of the meal where all particpants will drink some of the contents as a way to carry those hopes and dreams, as a community, out with them. Beautiful, yes?
- Customs. There are, as illustrated here, no real rules to a Seder but the key is to make it your own. A few of my favorite traditions/customary customs include leaving the doors and windows (weather permitting) open during a Seder to show there is nothing to hide (it was once rumored matzah was made with Christian blood, for instance), leaving a seat at the table empty for dead loved ones, allowing children to find all the hidden matzah, adding secular loves in to the mix (a friend of mine from Boston will include the reading of the starting line-up of the Boston Red Sox in his family Seder, a friend from my DC days would play Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" during her family meal). I'll go later this week to a Seder that is being organized/hosted by a good friend where she will be the ONLY (official) Jew at the table. But there will be about 10 of us all told. Make a Seder your own and keep it special.
- Personalizing Your Feast. You can add foods to your Seder plate and to your meal. One of my FAVORITE "common" modifications is to add an orange to the Seder plate. Why? Because a prominent female Jewish-scholar (Susannah Heschel) was once told that a woman in Jewish leadership was as appropriate as an orange on the Seder plate. So she slapped one on at her next Seder and the tradition has caught on. Many also believe the orange has come to symbolize all inclusion in the Jewish faith (women, gays, etc.) and many also believe an orange is important because it contains its own seeds and future.