Vigils (vigiliae, pernoctationes, παννυχίδες) is the term by which are designated in the Romish Church the ceremonies of preparation for the observance of one of the great feasts. It originally designated merely the nocturnal religious services of the early Christians in times of persecution, but afterwards was applied to the services instituted to enforce the idea that the Christian ought to be watchful unto prayer even in the night seasons, and assigned to the night preceding the recurrence of a notable feast of the Church. The vigils of Easter and Pentecost were regarded as especially holy in the 2nd century, and with the former were connected the holding of the agapae, or love-feasts, and the celebration of the Lord's supper, while with the latter was associated the sacrament of baptism. Only the faithful were allowed to participate in the vigils, of those feasts. In the 4th and 5th centuries the Easter vigils were generally chosen for the administration of either sacrament and for the conferring of orders; and those of Pentecost and Christmas held a subordinate place, baptism not being administered in connection with the latter. In the 12th century vigils were first held in honor of the Virgin Mary.
The celebration of vigils became very splendid after the 4th century, but also corrupted with many improprieties, insomuch that women were prohibited from engaging in it. Much opposition against their observance was aroused in consequence, their most prominent assailant being Vigilantius (q.v.). The convents were the principal agencies for perpetuating the institution of the vigils, but the churches gradually abolished it as a night service, and transformed the services into a fast. This gave rise to the Saturday fast. Vigils were afterwards observed in the forenoon of the day preceding a feast, and were generally adopted. At the present time an occasional midnight mass is celebrated at Christmas, and a vigil is observed on the evening before Easter, in addition to the forenoon vigil. Vigils precede the feasts of the Annunciation and Purifying of the Virgin, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and the days of John the Baptist, All Saints, and the apostles Matthew, Peter, Jude, James, Simon, Thomas, and Andrew. Some vigils are privileged, i.e. have a special service. If connected with a second or third grade feast, the officum is celebrated and the vigil observed in the laudes and the mass. If two priests officiate, one reads the mass for the feast after the tertia, the other that for the vigils after the nona. Non-privileged vigils simply commemorate the vigil. An occasional vigil is observed in the Protestant churches, e.g. the Moravians on Good Friday and Easter. See Augusti, Archäologie; Herzog, Real-Encyklop. s.v.; and the monographs cited by Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 115, 121.