Passover, which celebrates the freedom of the Jews from 400 years of bondage, is one of our family's favorite holidays. And whenever we invite friends to join us for a seder, most are unfamiliar with the significance of this ancient ritual, which bridges more than one religion.

But a seder is the pivotal part of the Passover holiday, and there are generally seders on the first two nights of this eight-day holiday. We've had as many as 40 people at earlier seders, when my wife had more strength and enjoyed putting together the feast that always follows the religious service. This year, our seder will be a very manageable -- 11 people.

What's critical about a seder is that it isn't just a meal, it is a service with a specific set of rituals. The word "seder" itself means "order," and that order begins with the very setting of the seder table.

When I set our seder table, it isn't just dishes and glasses. Every table includes wine glasses for the ritual four cups of wine that are a significant part of the seder -- by the way, four is a common number in the seder.

There is a traditional seder plate, which includes several important elements representing the story of Passover. Seder plates contain Maror (horse radish) which represents the bitter years that the Jews spent in Egyptian bondage. There is Karpas (parsley), which is a symbol of spring and new growth; Betza (roasted egg) to represent fertility and the cyclical nature of life; and salt water to symbolize the salty tears shed over 400 years of bondage. And there is Charoset (a delicious mix of apples, nuts, cinnamon and often raisins) to remind us of the mortar the Jews had to make to build the Egyptian pyramids.

But the most important item on the seder plate is a shank bone, which generally has a hint of dried blood on it. The bone is for us to remember the 10th plague God sent to force the pharaoh to release the Jews from Egypt. That plague was the death of the first-born child of all Egyptians and the Jews were instructed to smear the blood of a lamb on their door posts so the angel of death would pass over their homes.

Matzah (unleavened bread) is an integral part of the seder table. Because the Jews had no time to for their bread to rise before their journey to freedom, they created matzah instead.

In the center of every seder table is a tall glass of wine for the prophet Elijah. The tradition is that we must leave a glass of wine and leave our front door open so that Elijah will visit and drink deeply of this special wine.

We always put out a generous portion of charoset, as well as lots of matzah and dishes of horse radish.

The final element of our seder table is the Haggadah, which is the ritual prayer booklet of the seder. The Haggadah takes us through the Passover service in a specific order.

We begin with the traditional holiday Kiddush prayer, which I generally sing and is one of my favorites. We also drink the first cup of wine. We move next to another group of four -- the four questions, which are traditionally asked by the youngest member of the seder. The first is: "Why this night is different from all other nights. Following the questions, we begin to tell the Passover story, focusing on how the Jews became enslaved in Egypt.

The service carries us through the story of Moses, the messiah responsible for making freedom happen. Moses whose name signifies "taken from the bullrushes," was rescued by Pharaoh's daughter when the ruler issued an order to kill all first born Jewish sons and Moses' mother placed him in a basket in the bullrushes near the palace.

The Haggadah moves us next through the 10 plagues, which were unleashed on the Egyptians. At our seder, we usually have a paper plate above the dinner plate and for each plague named, we dip a fork into our cup of wine. After a few more parts of the Passover story, we drink the second cup of wine.

Following an explanation of the significance of the matzah, maror and pascal lamb, sprinkled with the third cup of wine, we are ready for a ritual washing of the hands and the serving of the Passover meal, which ends up as an assembly line of absolutely delicious soup, salad, vergetables and brisket in our household.

But that's another story.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.