Holy Saturday

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Holy Saturday

Blessed Sabbath, Easter Eve, Great Saturday,
Holy and Great Saturday, Saturday of Glory,
Saturday of Light, Saturday of Mourning

Holy Saturday falls the day before Easter. It constitutes the last day of Holy Week. Although most western Europeans know the day as Holy Saturday, many eastern Europeans call it Great Saturday. German speakers refer to it as Karsamstag, "Saturday of Mourning." On the island of Malta it is known as Sibt il Glorja, "Saturday of Glory." Christians from Iran and Iraq speak of Sabt al Noor, or the "Saturday of Light." This last name refers to the ancient custom of celebrating the Easter Vigil, held late at night on Holy Saturday, with the lighting of countless lamps and candles.

Roman Catholic and Protestant churches usually do not offer religious services on this day. This silence reflects the belief that between his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, Jesus lay dead in the tomb (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). Easter Vigil services, held at night on Holy Saturday, are technically considered the start of Easter Sunday celebrations. Devout Christians have traditionally spent Holy Saturday in quiet meditation on the meaning of Jesus'death (see also Holy Sepulchre).


In early Christian times the faithful fasted and prayed on Holy Saturday in preparation for the evening's Vigil service. This service featured the baptism of newcomers to the Christian faith. In Rome candidates for baptism visited the bishop on Holy Saturday. They recited the Creed, a short summary of the Christian faith, in his presence as proof of their knowledge and understanding of Christian doctrine. Then the bishop exorcised the baptismal candidates of evil spirits and led a ceremony in which they formally rejected Satan and dedicated themselves to Jesus Christ. Afterwards the candidates returned home to pray and prepare themselves for their baptisms later that evening. In other places this recitation of the Creed took place on Maundy Thursday. This custom eventually died out as Christianity spread and adult baptisms decreased in number.

From early Christian times onward, Holy Saturday services have involved the lighting of numerous lamps, candles, or torches (see also Easter Fires; Paschal Candle). An early Christian writer recorded the fact that Emperor Constantine (d. 337) "transformed the night of the sacred vigil into the brilliance of day, by lighting throughout the whole city . . . pillars of wax, while burning lamps illuminated every house, so that this nocturnal celebration was rendered brighter than the brightest day" (Weiser, 134). St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) described Holy Saturday evening as the "glowing night which links the splendor of burning lamps to the morning rays of the sun, thus producing continuous daylight without any darkness" (Weiser, 134). This seeming contradiction, a night as bright as day, echoed the seeming contradiction at the heart of the Easter festival, that is, life emerging from death.

This light symbolism lost its impact in western Europe as religious officials began to offer the Easter Vigil service earlier in the day. Throughout the Middle Ages the vigil service slid slowly back into the daylight hours, moving from afternoon to midday, and, by the late sixteenth century, to morning. In the 1950s Roman Catholic authorities restored the Easter Vigil service to the evening of Holy Saturday.


Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity split from Western Christianity - that is, Roman Catholicism, and later, Protestantism - about 1,000 years ago. Thus Orthodox traditions differ in some ways from those of Western Christians (see also Easter, Date of). For example, Orthodox Christians maintain the ancient Jewish custom of beginning each day at sundown. Therefore services held at Orthodox churches on the evening of Good Friday, in fact, mark the beginning of Holy Saturday in that faith tradition. Contemporary Orthodox Christians may attend several church services on Holy Saturday. Orthodox tradition holds that Jesus' Descent into Hell, that is, his journey to the netherworld to release the souls imprisoned by death, took place on Holy Saturday.

The service scheduled on the afternoon of Good Friday also belongs to Holy Saturday. It commemorates Jesus' burial and features a ceremonial cloth called the epitaphios embroidered with the image of Jesus reposing in death. At the end of the service the celebrant leads a short procession around the church carrying the Gospel book while others hold the epitaphios over it like a canopy. The procession ends at the kouvouklion, a ceremonial funeral bier that has been decorated with flowers. The priest lays the epitaphios down on the kouvouklion and then places the book on top of it. Clergy members and lay people approach the epitaphios one by one, bowing deeply before it and kissing both the cloth and the book. Clergy members offer each worshiper a flower from the kouvouklion. The bowing and kissing may be repeated up to three times. Parishioners take these flowers home with them and place them in the home ikonostasi, a special shelf or niche used to hold icons and other religious paraphernalia. The epitaphios remains on display in the church, inspiring worshipers to pray and to meditate on the death of Christ (see also Sin; Repentance; Redemption; Salvation). The epitaphios and funeral bier will also play an important role in the solemn evening services that follow several hours later. The high point of this service comes when clergy members pick up the funeral bier and lead the worshipers, each one carrying a lit candle, in a procession around the interior of the church. The procession serves as an emblem of Jesus' victory over death and darkness (see also Descent into Hell). Many processions actually exit the building and circle the church grounds or go around an entire city block before returning to the church. In Greece and other predominately Orthodox countries these processions make even longer trips through village and city streets. In some towns the procession includes a tour through the local cemetery where the bearers guide the bier over gravestones. In Athens, the Greek capital, the head of state and other political leaders play important roles in this procession.

Upon returning to the church, those carrying the bier halt just outside the church doors, so that to gain re-admittance everyone must duck under the epitaphios. This mode of reentering the church is thought to confer a blessing. Before passing under the epitaphios worshipers blow out their candles, a gesture that signifies the death of Christ, and clergy members sprinkle rosewater, representing tears, on the congregation.

Orthodox services continue on the morning of Holy Saturday. These morning services begin by addressing Jesus'Descent into Hell to liberate the dead and his observance of the Jewish Sabbath by resting in the grave (for more on Sabbath, see Sunday). Unlike the somber ceremony of the previous evening, the mood of this morning service lightens as it turns to consider the Resurrection. The clergy change their robes from dark to bright colors in the middle of the service, after which the priest scatters flower petals or bay leaves around the church while chanting, "Arise, O God, to the world." The leaves and petals represent Christ's triumph over death. Although celebrated on the morning of Holy Saturday, this observance technically serves as the vespers, or evening, service for Easter Sunday and thus as the Easter Vigil. Indeed, it resembles the Easter Vigil service observed by many Western Christians. A second Easter service, often referred to as the Resurrection service, is offered late at night on Holy Saturday. The Orthodox honor Holy Saturday with a variety of respectful names. They include Holy Saturday, Great Saturday, Holy and Great Saturday, and the Blessed Sabbath.

Folk Customs

Many people spend some part of Holy Saturday preparing for the Easter feast on the following day. In central Europe families prepare Easter breads, pastries, and meats on Holy Saturday. They boil and decorate Easter eggs on this day as well. In southern Germany old traditions encouraged housewives to bring baskets of Easter foods to church on Holy Saturday so that the priest might bless them (see also Germany, Easter and Holy Week in). In Poland schoolboys once engaged in an old Holy Saturday folk ritual known as "burying" the Lenten fare. After making off with a herring and a pot of rye gruel, typical Polish Lenten dishes, they "executed" the herring by means of a mock hanging and dashed the pot of gruel against a tree or rock. This informal rite expressed their delight about the end of the long Lenten fast (see also Poland, Easter and Holy Week in). In the mountains of Austria people light bonfires on the evening of Holy Saturday (see also Easter Fires). Easter season fires are also known in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, although there they may be lit on Walpurgis Night rather than on Easter eve.

In eastern Europe people prepare Easter baskets full of special Easter foods and decorated eggs on Holy Saturday. They bring the baskets to church where the priest blesses them. These baskets provide the family with breakfast on Easter Sunday morning. In Russia old traditions encouraged people to bring paskha, a special Russian Easter bread, to church on Holy Saturday for the priest's blessing (see also Russia, Easter and Holy Week in). In some regions priests visited homes on Holy Saturday, blessing the Easter feast that was already being set on the tables in preparation for the end of the Lenten fast. Families adorned these banquet tables with fresh spring flowers and dyed Easter eggs. According to old standards of Easter hospitality, each person who visited the home on that day was offered one of the family's painted Easter eggs. Further Reading

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Hopko, Thomas. The Orthodox Faith. Volume Two, Worship. Syosset, NY: The Orthodox Church in America, 1972. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1994. Tyrer, John Walton. Historical Survey of Holy Week. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1932. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997.

Web Site

"Holy Saturday," a document describing the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Christians concerning Holy Saturday, posted on the Orthodox Church in America web site:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Holy Saturday

Between March 21 and April 24 in the West and between April 3 and May 7 in the East; the day before Easter
The Saturday before Easter Sunday, also called Easter Even, is the last day of Holy Week and brings the season of Lent to a close. In the early church, this was the major day for baptisms. Many churches, especially those of the Anglican Communion, still hold large baptismal services on Holy Saturday. It is also known as the Vigil of Easter in reference to the fact that Jesus' followers spent this day, after his crucifixion on Good Friday, waiting. The Easter, or Paschal, Vigil, the principal celebration of Easter, is traditionally observed the night of Holy Saturday in many churches today. Another name for this day is the Descent into Hell, because it commemorates Jesus' descent into and victory over hell.
Slavic Orthodox Christians bring baskets of food to the church for the Blessing of the Pascha (Easter) Baskets on Holy Saturday. The baskets are filled with the foods from which people have abstained during the Lenten fast and which will be part of the Pascha feast. For many inhabitants of Mexican descent in Los Angeles, California, Holy Saturday is the day for a colorful ceremony known as the Blessing of the Animals, which takes place at the Old Plaza Church near Olvera Street.
Christian Resource Institute
4712 N. Hammond
Warr Acres, OK 73122
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument
845 N. Alameda St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Orthodox Church in America
P.O. Box 675
Syosset, NY 11791
516-922-0550; fax: 516-922-0954
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 238
BkFest-1937, pp. 24, 41, 70, 87, 96, 148, 168, 184, 211, 227, 260, 275, 292, 301, 339
BkHolWrld-1986, Apr 11
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 258
EncyEaster-2002, p. 284
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 439
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 9, 60, 94, 108
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 172
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 224
IndianAmer-1989, p. 274
OxYear-1999, p. 620
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 161

Celebrated in: Australia, Belize, Chile, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Mexico, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Georgia, Seychelles, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Holy Saturday (Mexico) (Sábado de Gloria)
Between March 21 and April 24; day before Easter
In Mexico, Holy Saturday is observed by burning effigies of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the religious authorities for 30 pieces of silver. Street vendors sell the papier-mâchÉ effigies, which range from one to five feet in height and make Judas look as ugly as possible. The effigies designed for children are stuffed with candies and hung in the patios of private houses. Other effigies are suspended over the streets or hung from lampposts. All have firecrackers attached, which are ignited as soon as the Mass of Glory is over. As the effigies explode, kids jostle one another in an attempt to retrieve the candies and trinkets that are hidden inside.
The church bells, which have been silent since the Wednesday before Easter, ring on Holy Saturday, and there are folk beliefs associated with the ringing of the bells. For example, it is believed that plants or hair trimmed while the bells are ringing will grow back faster. Children are often smacked on the legs so that they'll grow taller.
See also Burning of Judas
Mexico Tourism Board
21 E. 63rd St., Fl. 3
New York, NY 10021
800-446-3942 or 212-821-0314; fax: 212-821-0367
BkFest-1937, p. 227
BkHolWrld-1986, Apr 11
EncyEaster-2002, p. 406
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 235

Celebrated in: Mexico

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
This 5th century document written in Latin recounts in detail the liturgical activities of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, with special attention to the Easter Vigil.
On Saturday, March 31, there will be an Easter Vigil at 9pm for Holy Saturday and on Sunday, April 1, there will be an Ecumenical Sunrise Service on the Castle Esplanade at 7.30am, followed by Holy Communion in the church at 8.30am and Sung Eucharist at 10.30am.
It is no longer a Holy Saturday painting: It is Borysewicz's own variation on life out of death through Jesus, untethered from the specifics of the sacred calendar.
The ceremony, celebrated by Palestinian Christians across the Holy Land, takes place each year on "Holy Saturday," or "Saturday of Light" in Arabic, marking the day following Good Friday, when Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified in Jerusalem, and the day before Easter, which marks his resurrection from the grave.
On Holy Saturday the church was prepared for Easter Sunday and in the evening a vigil service was held with the lighting of the Easter Fire and Paschal Candle.
Synopsis: Holy Saturday is a day of burning the Judas ...
"The African infiltrators have turned 'Good Friday' and 'Holy Saturday' into two days of an ongoing nightmare for the residents of southern Tel Aviv, who live next to the huge churches, or have to endure the horror of having one of the churches as their neighbor inside their residential building," she explained.
Saint George Greek Orthodox Church - The Holy Saturday Easter (Pascha) Vigil will start at 11 p.m.
"Holy week features Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.
On Holy Saturday a solemn Easter vigil will be held at 8pm with Baptism and Confirmation.
Holy Saturday was the third of four hectic days leading up to Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Christian liturgical calendar.
The run-off was initially scheduled to take place on 4 and 5 May, coinciding with Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, the most important feast in the Coptic calendar.