Middle English vigile, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin & Latin; Late Latin vigilia watch on the eve of a feast, from Latin, wakefulness, watch, from vigil awake, watchful; akin to Latin vigēre to be vigorous, vegēre to enliven — more at wake
- Date: 13th century
- b : the day before a religious feast observed as a day of spiritual preparation
- c : evening or nocturnal devotions or prayers —usually used in plural
- 2 : the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary; also : a period of wakefulness
- 3 : an act or period of watching or surveillance : watch <kept vigil at her bedside>
A vigil (from the Latin vigilia, meaning wakefulness) is a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching, or an observance. The Italian word vigilia has become generalized in this sense and means "eve" (as in on the eve of the war).
- Eves of religious celebrations
A vigil may be held on the eve of a religious festival (feast days), observed by remaining awake--"watchful"--as a devotional exercise or ritual observance on the eve of a holy day. Such liturgical vigils usually consist of psalms, prayers and hymns, possibly a sermon or readings from the Holy Fathers, and sometimes periods of silent meditation.
The term "eve" means that the observance begins on the evening before. In traditional Christianity, the celebration of liturgical feasts begins on the evening before the holy day because the Early Church continued the Jewish practice of beginnnig the day at sunset rather than midnight.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church an All-Night Vigil (consisting of Great Vespers, Matins and the First Hour) is held on the eves of Sundays and all Major Feast Days (such as the Twelve Great Feasts and the Feast Days of important Saints) during the liturgical year.
- Vigils at the time of death
In Christianity, especially the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, a vigil is often held when someone is gravely ill or dying. Prayers are said and votives are often made. Vigils extend from eventual death to burial, ritualistically to pray for a loved one, but more practically so they are never alone.
- Medieval knights
During the Middle Ages, a squire on the night before his knighting ceremony was expected to take a cleansing bath, fast, make confession, and then hold an all-night vigil of prayer to God in the chapel, readying himself for his life as a knight. He would dress in white, which was the symbol for purity.