What Is Holy Saturday and How Do We Commemorate It?

Holy Saturday is the Saturday immediately before Easter Sunday and immediately after Good Friday. It is a part of Holy Week in the tradition of many Christian denominations. There are many important traditions attached to his holiday, and it has a long, rich history.

General Facts About Holy Saturday

Date Type Alternative names National holiday
Varies from year to year, but always the day before Easter. Religious Easter Eve, Black Saturday, Great Saturday, or Easter Vigil. Yes. Parts of Australia, Latin American countries such as Chile, Panama, and Belize; Pacific nations like Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Samoa; as well as in such far-flung places as Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Hong Kong.

What Is Holy Saturday?

Why is this particular Saturday considered holy? It is because it was on this day that Jesus’ body lay dead in the tomb, awaiting the soon to come glorious Resurrection on Easter Morning. Holy Saturday is also the final day of Lent; it’s the fast that for Roman Catholics and some Protestants continues for 40 days before Easter.

Additionally, this is the day when Jesus’ disciples waited together in a “vigil” after Jesus’ crucifixion. And it is the day on which Pilate ordered a Roman guard unit to keep watch over Jesus’ tomb.

According to some traditions, Holy Saturday was also the time of a “triumphant descent into Hell” by Jesus. It is sometimes called the “harrowing of Hell.”

The History of Holy Saturday

In the ancient church, it was common to observe the end of the Lenten season with large-scale baptismal services. However, these early end-of-Lent, Holy Saturday services were long avoided in later years in the Roman Catholic Church. The idea was that Jesus’ disciples were still in a state of disbelief until He arose the next morning, Easter morning. Thus, services seemed inappropriate.

Additionally, it was long a common practice to hold an “Easter Vigil” on Holy Saturday evening. This was a solemn waiting for the stroke of midnight, when Easter Sunday began. It was a time to remember the darkness of death and the fact that Jesus triumphed over it all when He arose from the grave.

But these vigils were also discontinued in the Catholic Church for centuries, until they were restored to their former place in the church year in 1955. Orthodox churches, on the other hand, had continued these practices from ancient times.

In general, Holy Saturday has been a time of candlelight services to represent the triumph of Christ over death and of light over darkness. It has also been a time when bells toll out the news that Lent is over; all are free to feast and enjoy the Easter season. And there is also a strong association of Holy Saturday, in some traditions, with confirmation and baptism of new converts.

The Holy Week

But it must always be remembered that Holy Saturday is an integral part of “Holy Week,” which extends from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Its meaning is tied in with the meaning of the other days in the week.

Palm Sunday is the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, being hailed by many as their long-expected King. Holy Thursday is when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and predicted his coming death. On Good Friday, he laid down his life for his sheep. On Holy Saturday, his body lay low in the grave for the entirety of the day. This was the seeming “low point.” And the high point, the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, immediately followed.

It is all a connected story and an interrelated drama. The place of Holy Saturday in the Church has always been an organic part of the “greater story of Easter.”

Holy Saturday Traditions

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In the United States, as in other countries all over the world, many religious people attend the Easter Vigil on the evening of the Saturday before Easter. The service will often include singing, prayers, and a sermon on the death and Resurrection of Christ. It may also include the lighting of candles. Many times, baptisms occur at this service as well.

Some will also light candles in their own homes, especially if they are unable to attend the church service. Holy Saturday is also the day when many in the U.S. will prepare for Easter at home by dying Easter eggs and arranging and possibly hiding Easter baskets full of candies, eggs, and real or artificial grass.

In Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans have developed a new tradition of blessing animals in a religious ceremony on Holy Saturday. Actually, it is the moving of a different holiday’s traditions, that of Saint Anthony of the Desert Day, to the day before Easter. Dogs, cats, cows, horses, monkeys, and many others types of animals get “blessed” on this day.

In Mexico, Holy Saturday is called “Judas Day” because it was Judas’ betrayal that led to Jesus being in the grave that Saturday. Mexicans will burn Judas in effigy, and you can buy a Judas doll on the street just for the purpose of burning it! And other Judas dolls are filled with candy, just like pinatas, and then blown up with firecrackers. You can see kids running after the candy as it falls from the sky.

In Czech Republic, Judas also looms large on Holy Saturday. The last remains of the church’s holy oil supply will be burned up near the church door, and keys will be rattled, all in an attempt to scare Judas away.

Summing Up

While its position between the two major Christian holidays of Good Friday and Easter Sunday may make some tend to forget about Holy Saturday, in fact, it is also a significant Christian holiday in its own right. It is celebrated all over the world with Easter Vigils, the end of the Lenten fast, and other more peculiar customs. And its meaning in the story of Jesus in the Gospels is remembered in song, prayer, and sermon.