Lazarus Saturday

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Lazarus Saturday

Orthodox Christians celebrate Lazarus Saturday on the second Saturday before Easter. This observance commemorates Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). According to the Bible this incident took place just before Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Christians celebrate Jesus' entrance to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which falls on the Sunday before Easter. Orthodox Christians observe Lazarus Saturday on the day before Palm Sunday.

Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity developed in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. It split away from Western Christianity, which later divided into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, about 1,000 years ago. Orthodox and other Eastern Christians follow a slightly different schedule of religious observances than do Western Christians. In addition, they maintain their own distinctive calendar system which causes their Lent and Easter season observances to fall on different dates than those celebrated by Western Christians.


Historical evidence suggests that devotion to Lazarus was common among the early Christians. Among Eastern Christians this devotion took the form of a festival celebrating his return from death. The observance of Lazarus Saturday can be traced back to ancient times. In the late fourth century a woman named Egeria journeyed to the Holy Land from western Europe. She kept a diary of her pilgrimage in which she recorded how Jerusalem Christians observed Lent and Holy Week. According to Egeria, Christians in Jerusalem celebrated the raising of Lazarus on the Saturday before Palm Sunday by walking in procession to the town of Bethany, where Lazarus had lived and died. There they visited the church that had been built over Lazarus'tomb. Some scholars suspect that the earliest celebrations of Lazarus Saturday took place in the Christian communities of Constantinople, Turkey (modern-day Istanbul) and Alexandria, Egypt. They suggest that when Christians from these cities made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, they introduced these observances to the Jerusalem community, which later adopted them.

Religious Observance

Today Eastern Christians still observe Lazarus Saturday on the day before Palm Sunday. Orthodox church services held on that day retell the story of his coming back to life at Jesus' command. Some people refer to this miracle as the "first Easter." Indeed, Lazarus' raising provides Jesus' followers with a preview of the kind of miracle that will occur the following week on Easter Sunday (see also Resurrection).

Greek Folk Customs

In Greece, a country in which most people are Orthodox Christians, children celebrate Lazarus Saturday by singing folk songs about Lazarus from door to door. Called lazarakia, these songs describe the miracle of his rising from the dead. Sometimes the children carry props said to represent Lazarus, such as a picture, doll, or even a staff or rod covered with flowers, ribbons, and cloth. On the island of Crete children display a more abstract emblem representing Lazarus, a cross made of reeds and decorated with lemon blossoms and pretty red flowers. In central Greece girls usually take responsibility for banding together to sing lazarakia. On the island of Cyprus boys do, often acting out the story told in the song. One child, draped with garlands of yellow flowers, lies down and pretends to be Lazarus. When the others call, "Lazarus, come out!" he jumps up from the ground. Songsters refresh themselves with special buns known as lazari. Some bakers form the buns by twisting lumps of dough, as if to represent a man twisted up in a sheet. Others form it into a long thin roll, cross the ends, and decorate the resulting loop with a cross made out of currants, a raisin-like dried fruit. According to Greek folklore, a child who rolls one of these buns down a hill stands a good chance of finding a bird's nest where it comes to rest.

Eastern European and Middle Eastern Customs

Other eastern European nations share similar customs. In past times little Bulgarian girls decked themselves in bridal finery and went door to door singing songs about Lazarus. Householders gave them eggs or small coins in return. On the following day, Palm Sunday, slightly older girls continued the door-to-door serenades with songs that wished health, good fortune, romance, or happy marriages to the occupants. Another old Bulgarian custom taught boys and girls to reenact the Bible story concerning Lazarus'death. The boys, pretending to be Lazarus, feign death. The girls, acting as his sisters Mary and Martha, go from house to house asking, "When is the Lord coming to raise our brother from the dead?" Neighbors gave the children coins and cookies in exchange for this presentation.

In Romania folk tradition also encouraged little girls to dress in bridal clothes and go door to door singing songs about Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Romanians call these girls lazarines. Similar customs prevailed in the former Yugoslavia, where small bands of children trouped from door to door singing songs about the miracle of Lazarus' rising from the dead. Adults rewarded them with fruit or candy. In Christian communities in the Middle Eastern nation of Syria, an old custom encouraged local school teachers to lead bands of students through the neighborhood chanting the story of Lazarus' rising from the dead. Householders presented the students with eggs or coins.

In some eastern European countries children gather pussy willow branches on Lazarus Saturday. The branches are blessed in church services that evening for use on the following day, Palm Sunday. In Russia parishioners took the blessed branches home with them and placed them next to their icons, religious images used in prayer and worship. Old Russian folklore recommended that parents switch their children with the willow wands, in order that they grow up "tall like the willow, healthy like water, and rich like the soil."

Further Reading

Bradshaw, Paul F. The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hopko, Thomas. The Orthodox Faith. Volume Two, Worship. Syosset, NY: The Orthodox Church in America, 1972. "Lazarus." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Lazarus Saturday

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Between March 27 and April 30; Saturday before Palm Sunday
Where Celebrated: Eastern Europe, Greece, Russia
Symbols and Customs: Willow
Related Holidays: Easter, Palm Sunday


Lazarus Saturday is a religious holiday in the Eastern Orthodox Christian church. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

In the Russian and other Orthodox churches, the Saturday before PALM SUNDAY is set aside to honor Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. According to the Gospel of St. John, Jesus went to see Mary and Martha in Bethany when he heard that their brother was ill. But by the time he arrived, Lazarus had already been dead in his grave for four days. Jesus told Martha to take the stone away from the tomb where Lazarus had been buried. When she did, Jesus called out, "Lazarus, come forth." Lazarus walked out of the tomb, still wearing his graveclothes.

Lazarus Saturday was an important holiday in Bulgaria up until the early twentieth century. Young girls dressed up in bridal costumes went from house to house singing songs they had learned especially for this day and receiving eggs and sometimes small coins in return. On Palm Sunday, the older girls did the same thing, singing songs that dealt with various aspects of love, marriage, and family life. They made small wreaths out of WILLOW twigs and floated them on a river or in the village fountain. The girl whose wreath was the first to float after being submerged was given the title of kumitsa. The other girls were not allowed to speak to the kumitsa from Palm Sunday until EASTER. Then, on Easter Day, they would bring her presents of Easter eggs and a special kind of bread, in return for which the kumitsa would forgive them for their enforced silence.

In Greece, children still go from house to house singing songs about the resurrection of Lazarus on the day before Palm Sunday, usually carrying a picture of the story with them. Sometimes Lazarus is represented by a doll or a staff decorated with ribbons and cloth. In Cyprus, a boy covered with yellow flowers impersonates Lazarus. As he is led from house to house, he pretends to be dead and then rises when the girls say, "Lazarus! Come out!" This ritual so closely resembles the resurrection of Christ that it is often referred to as the "first Easter." In Russia, the morning church service on this day is devoted to the memory of Lazarus. At the evening service, pussy willows are brought into the church to be blessed (see WILLOW ). In Greece, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia, groups of children carry willow branches from house to house and act out the story of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead. In return, they receive gifts of fruit and candy. They believe that the resurrection of Lazarus is symbolic of the renewal of spring.



Because the willow flourishes no matter how many of its branches are cut off, it stands as a symbol for the gospel of Christ, which remains intact no matter how widely it is spread over the world.

The willow is also known for its strength and flexibility. In Russia, the willow branches (or pussy willows) that are blessed in the church on Lazarus Saturday are never thrown out, but are later burned as sacred objects. According to an ancient folk belief, people who beat their children with willow branches are merely trying to impart the virtues of the willow tree-which is tall, healthy, and resilient-to the child.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990.


New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Lazarus Saturday

Between March 27 and April 30; Saturday before Palm Sunday
In Russia and in all Eastern Orthodox churches, the Saturday before Palm Sunday (or Willow Sunday) is set aside to honor Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Pussywillows are blessed at the evening service in the Russian Orthodox Church, and the branches are distributed to the worshippers, who take them home and display them above their icons. It was an ancient folk custom for people to beat their children with willow branches—not so much to punish them as to ensure that they would grow up tall and resilient like the willow tree.
On this day in Greece, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia, one custom is for groups of children to carry willow branches from house to house and sing songs and act out the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In return, they receive gifts of fruit and candy. They believe the resurrection of Lazarus is symbolic of the renewal of spring, which is why the Lazarouvane (the celebration of St. Lazarus's Day in Bulgaria) focuses on fertility and marriage.
Orthodox Church in America
P.O. Box 675
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BkFest-1937, pp. 290, 337
EncyEaster-2002, p. 343
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 170
OxYear-1999, pp. 502, 643
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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The first round of the phase was scheduled to take place on 27 and 28 April, during Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.
A statement said the new starting date for the election would be April 22-23 instead of 27-28 which fell on the Christian holidays of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.
It includes the religious holidays of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) and Good Friday, and lasts from Palm Sunday (or in the Eastern Orthodox, Lazarus Saturday) until Easter Sunday.
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Thus for Eastern Orthodox Christians Lazarus Saturday also marks the imminent Holy Week before Easter, which they call the Passion Week.
According to Bulgarian folk beliefs, Lazarus Saturday, also called Lazaritsa, is a day on which young girls are initated to become future wives.
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Lazarus Saturday is celebrated on the last-but-one Saturday before Easter - the day before Palm Sunday.
In Bulgarian folkore Lazarus Saturday also marks a rite of passage of young girls making them future brides.