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A vigil is a period of intentional wakefulness set aside for religious contemplation, prayer, and other devotional activities. Many cultures have some sort of vigil tradition in their religious beliefs, suggesting that the idea of staying awake for religious observances is appealing to many people, regardless as to their cultural background. The idea of the vigil has also been adopted in some communities to refer to any period of time specifically set aside for contemplation and watchfulness, whether or not it requires staying awake at unusual times.
The word "vigil" is derived from the Middle English vigile, which means "devotional watching." This word in turn comes from the Latin vigil, which means "awake." People have been staying awake for religious purposes for centuries, as ample works of art and writings prove, and periods of vigil continue to be an important part of many religions.
In many cultures, it is traditional to sit in vigil over the dead, so that they are not left alone before burial, cremation, or any other form of disposition. Typically the dead are laid out in a church or a formal room in a home, and people may take turns sitting vigil, or sit up together. During vigils for the dead, people may observe silent contemplation, or they may pray, socialize, and talk about the dead. This tradition is still observed in many cultures, with the end of the vigil being marked by the funeral.
Vigils have also historically been held on the eve of major religious holidays. Eastern Orthodox Christians often observe this tradition by gathering outside their churches on the eve of big holidays, waiting for the church to open for a midnight mass and celebration, and some people also observe such vigils at home. Vigils have also been used to set time aside for contemplation before a major life event, like a wedding or an entry into military service.
In some cultures, vigils are also used as a form of protest, and to increase community awareness. People may sit in vigil after an unjust death, for example, signaling their discontent to a community, and many communities gather for candlelight vigils after tragedies to give people a chance to connect with each other. While this type of vigil departs somewhat from a vigil in the traditional religious sense, many people find such vigils very valuable, as they can provide an outlet for intense emotions.